Outdoor Art With a Purpose

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A Connecticut community bands together to paint a women’s empowerment mural along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail.

Sweat rolls down my forehead and into my eyes as I work to finish the final portion of my task. I am working in the hot, summer sun volunteering at an REI trail stewardship event, but, I’m not deep in the woods, clearing a trail through the wilderness – instead I am in Newhallville, a community just north of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut standing next to a tall, concrete wall.

Today’s stewardship project involves painting a mural along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. Local artist, Kwadwo Adea, is the creative mind behind a women’s empowerment mural depicting seventeen women from all cultures and walks of life. I’ve never painted anything other than my bedroom walls, but today I find myself focused on brushing Juanita Anita’s dress with a fresh coat of burgundy paint.

Kwadwo met Juanita Anita while working together on a previous mural project in Guatemala and he let me know that Anita’s dress is actually “a huipiles,” which is “the vibrantly embroidered bird and flower designs worn by indigenous Mayan women.” Juanita Anita towers 18 feet high, so this is no quick and easy painting project. Kwadwo has outlined Anita’s depiction on the wall and I am painting in the lines in a larger-than-life color-by-number.

All seventeen women depicted in the mural differ in age, culture, and size yet they all look out over the bike path with the same confident gaze as they raise a torch symbolic of the Statue of Liberty. These women are real, inspirational individuals from the local community and abroad. My favorite character on the wall is Hanifa Nayo Washington, a local New Haven musician and cultural activist. Her intrepid stance invokes feeling of protection and assurance.

As unique as the project is, perhaps the most remarkable feat is how integrated the community is to the creation of the mural! One of the women depicted in the mural is Diane Brown, the well-loved local community librarian. Before Kwadwo ever touched a paintbrush to this wall, he held three public forums to engage the community and hear opinions on the mural. The results of these forums are clearly evidenced by the strong community participation in the project.

The “rail-trail,” as the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail is called locally, is a paved bike path that runs north from New Haven, Connecticut all the way to Northampton, Massachusetts, connecting eleven towns throughout the heart of Connecticut. This 80-mile, multi-use trail provides recreational users with an off-road venue for biking, walking, running and even rollerblading. The trail is integral to Connecticut’s outdoor recreation economy. According to Lisa Fernandez, president of the Farmington Rail-to-Trail Association, “the trail generates millions of dollars in local revenues.” She adds, “Mr. Adae’s mural enlivens a section of the trail adjacent to a local industrial zone, humanizing it with visual stories of the importance of women to the fabric of the community in which the trail is embedded.”

Here in this section of Newhallville the neighborhood is grittier than the ordered stonework buildings just blocks away at Yale. However the community spirit is very much alive! Runners and bikers greet Kwadwo by name as they pass by on the trail. The volunteers working on the mural represent the diversity you would expect to find in a multi-cultural city. I strike up a friendly conversation with a fellow “fledgling artist” as we work side-by-side on the mural. An hour quickly passes, and we are ready for a break from the summer heat.

Thankfully a school bus pulls up filled to the brim with children from a local after school program who are excited to contribute to the mural. I gratefully pass off my paint brush as Kwadwo cheerfully doles out paint cans and gives directions to a new crew of eager artists. I go over to the nearby ice cream truck, thoughtfully provided by REI as a thank-you to all the volunteers. REI has funded a large portion of this project with a $5000 grant from the local store in nearby Milford, Connecticut.

The co-op awarded the grant to the Farmington Rail-to-Trail Association, a non-profit that exists to increase developments along the rail-trail. Neil Johnson, the REI Milford store manager, could not be more ecstatic about the project. “I was stoked about the idea of applying REI Grant money to this project because it connects with what we stand for on so many levels.,” says Neil. “The mural itself embodies the Force of Nature movement. At its core the project builds community between a wide variety of stakeholders from the local neighborhood with limited open space, to the nearby university and the suburbs beyond. Perhaps even more importantly the new outdoor space created encourages folks from all stations in life to get outside and enjoy some fresh air. What could be better?”

As I sit in the shade, eating ice cream, and watching the mural come alive before my eyes I am struck by the beauty of the project. Although the confident poise of the seventeen women is both striking and inspiring, I am most moved by my new community of friends who came together to work outside in the summer heat to support a cause they believe in.

The mural will be finished at the end of August. If you would like to see the mural for yourself, it is located alongside the Connecticut portion of Farmington Canal Heritage Trail between Goodrich Street in Hamden and Bassett Street in New Haven.

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