Friday, August 29, 2014

Westcott Neighborhood Murals: A Primer on a Community's Artwork

Syracuse, NY. Boom Babies Mural on Harvard Pl. at Westcott St. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Syracuse, NY. Boom Babies Mural on Harvard Pl. at Westcott St. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Syracuse, NY. "Heart of the Neighborhood," community mosaic Mural on Harvard Pl. at Westcott St. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Westcott Neighborhood Murals: A Primer on a Community's Artwork
by Samuel D. Gruber

Westcott Street has been hopping this summer - with lots of street life at the cafes, restaurants, the new bakery and the Westcott Theater, a popular contemporary music venue.  The Save the Rain Project closed the street some days and caused dislocation, but it is now passed and finally the painted crosswalks have been replaced   Life on the street is good.

Westcott Street - or the "Westcott Nation" as it still sometimes called, is known visually for its murals - the biggest collection of exterior public painted and mosaic wall decoration in the city.  Compared to the mural programs in places like Philadelphia, or even on 45th Street in Seattle's Wallinford neighborhood, this is small potatoes...but the neighbors of Westcott are proud and involved in their murals, so they are not to be taken lightly.  In almost every way this a poplar art, made and promoted by many of the people who witness the murals everyday.  

Thus, I was surprised to find that there is no handy guide to the Westcott wall art.  So here is an introduction: 

The Boom Babies Mural (above), on south wall of 489 Westcott St., is one of the most popular in the neighborhood.  It was painted in 2002 by Michael Swatt and replaced an earlier work created in the 1990s.  Both of the murals utilized a flat pattern language of advertising graphics and poster art to create identification with and nostalgia for past stylish decades, recreated in the vintage and exotic fashions  offered by Boom Babies owner and mural sponsor Lorraine Koury.   The first Boom Babies mural inspired others,  initiating a what has become a tradition of mural painting in the neighborhood.

Syracuse, NY. "Heart of the Neighborhood," community mosaic Mural on Harvard Pl. at Westcott St. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber
Across the street at the rear of 501 Westcott Street (SE corner of Harvard Pl) facing east, is the 6' x 8' mosaic tile mural “Heart of the Neighborhood,”  designed by SU professor and former Westcott Neighborhood Association board member Marisa Temple and created by community residents,   as part of a project by the Neighborhood Association and begun at the Westcott Street Fair in 1998.  The mural was installed in 1999.

Syracuse, NY. "Peace by Piece," mosaic at Petit Library. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Another related mosaic mural was installed on the east wall of Petit Library in 2011.  This work was a project of local artist and teacher Ann Cofer; Ed Smith K-8 School art teacher Mary Lynn Mahan; and students from Ed Smith School.  The mosaic mural, is called Peace by Piece, and represents white doves against an abstract background. It is inspired by a paper cut work by Matisse; Polynesia, the Sky.  Cofer and Mahan adapted Matisse's design into shapes the students could make with single or groups of tiles.

About 175 students from grades three to eight worked on the mosaic during the 2010-11 school year.  New tiles were created, and these were mixed with left over tiles from the 1999 mural on Harvard Place. The library was an active participant in the process, as was the Syracuse Public Art program and the Westcott East Neighborhood Association which had sponsored the previous mosaic. The new tiles were filed in a kiln at Syracuse University.  The mural which was made by gluing the tiles onto cement boards and was installed by city employees.  It was unveiled on September 24, 2011.  [see: Greg Mason, "Pieces Linked to Make Mosaic," The Post-Standard / Neighbors City (November 10, 2011).

 Syracuse, NY. Community mural by Michael Moody at Westcott and South Beech Streets.   Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Local artist Michael Moody was commissioned by the Westcott East Neighborhood Association in 1997 to paint a mural. The mural was developed out of a much more comprehensive project of community involvement and planning aimed to revive the Westcott Commercial District.  The scene represents neighborhood residents, including Tony DeLuca, long-time resident and proprietor of Abdo's grocery store (and father of most recent owner Ron DeLuca), who died the year the mural was completed.  Abdo's,  operated by the DeLuca family since 1936, was recently sold to a new owner, and the name will be changed.

Syracuse, NY.  Seven Rays Landscape mural by Jeff Bowe (destroyed), painted in 1990.

In 1990 Jeff Bowe painted an expansive, fantastic and idyllic landscape on the side of the Saven Rays bookstore, long a destination counter-culture business on Westcott Street.  Part of Bowe's work was destroyed during repair of structural damage which required removal a large section of the work. 

In response, in 2012 a committee of the Westcott Area Cultural Coalition, the same organization that oversees the Westcott Street Cultural Fair, began searching for an artist for a new mural on the north wall of the building that now houses the Asahi Japanese Restaurant and Beer Belly Deli.  In preparation for the project the Coalition had asked residents of Westcott to answer the question “What does Westcott mean to me?” Artist Alex Biegler’s design was selected through an RFP process. Biegler, is a Texas native and graduate of Syracuse University. The new mural, completed in 2013, was funded by a grant from the Cultural Resource Council (Now CNY Arts) and the owner of the building. 

 Syracuse, NY.  Alex Biegler at work on Westcott mural.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

Syracuse, NY. Westcott mural by Alex Biegler (2013). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

In presenting the design, Biegler wrote "the mural aims to take a universal approach by discussing the idea of community itself.  This will serve both to confirm and challenge the public by providing a mirror of what they already value and connecting this value to its importance with the past, present, and future of the earth."  True, this statement is pretty vague...but still in one way at least it gets to the heart of the subject matter.  The mural present idealized views - silhouettes - of 139 natural forms, mostly referring to various species of tree, birds and beetles.  One can view these a community of related living forms, or a matrix related visual images.  Enclosing each silhouette in a box, however, recalls not a natural community - but an artificial one - that consists of the pinned specimens of entomology class. But the grid also recalls the grid of the Westcott Neighborhood, with each specimen inhabiting its own little block.

Syracuse, NY.  Westcott mural by Alex Biegler (2013).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

The 70 feet by 14 feet mural consists of three sections: an inner circle, a second circle, and an outer section surrounding the two inner circles.  Within the second circle are a series of silhouettes (the red squares) of natural organisms (plants, birds, bugs). There are no repeating pattern.  Each of 139 different organisms appears once.  Here is list of all the organisms silhouetted in the mural - can you identify them all?

1. Box Elder

2. Red Maple
3. Silver Maple
4. Sugar Maple
5. Sweet Birch
6. River Birch
7. Gray Birch
8. Hornbeam
>9. Hackberry
10. Eastern Redbud
11. Fringetree
12. Flowering Dogwood
13. American Beech
14. White Ash
15. Green Ash
16. Eastern Red Cedar
17. Sweet Gum
18. Tulip Poplar
19. Sweetbay Magnolia
20. Black Gum
21. American Sycamore
22. Eastern Cottonwood
23. Wild Plum
24. Black Cherry
25. White Oak
26. Scarlet Oak
27. Pin Oak
28. Chestnut Oak
29. Red Oak
30. Black Oak
31. Black Willow
32. Sassafras
33. Basswood
34. Speckled Alder
35. Smooth Alder
36. Shadbush Serviceberry
37. Allegheny Serviceberry
38. Red Chokeberry
39. Black Chokeberry
40. Sea Myrtle
41. Buttonbush
42. Sweet Pepperbush
43. Silky Dogwood
44. Gray Dogwood
45. Red-osier Dogwood
46. Witchhazel
47. Winterberry
48. Virginia Sweetspire
49. Marsh Elder
50. Spicebush
51. Wax Myrtle
52. Northern Bayberry
53. Common Ninebark
54. Beach Plum
55. Fragrant Sumac
56. Dwarf-winged Sumac
57. Smooth Sumac
58. Staghorn Sumac
59. Swamp Rose
60. Silky Willow
61. Elderberry
62. Arrowwood
63. Nannyberry
64. Black Haw
65. Cranberry Bush
66. Blue Star, Canada
67. American bittern
68. Blue-winged warbler
69. Brown thrasher
70. Bullfrog
71. Common merganser
72. Common yellowthroat
73. Double-crested cormorant
74. Eastern chipmunk,
75. Eastern cottontail,
76. Grasshopper,
77. Great snowy egret
78. Green hero
79. Laughing gull
80. Limpki,
81. Mallard
82. Marsh wren
83. Mourning dove
84. Muskrat
85. Mute swan
86. Oriole
87. Painted turtle
88. Red-bellied woodpecker
89. Red-tailed hawk
90. Red-winged blackbird
91. Song sparrow
92. Tree frog
93. Tufted Titmouse
94. Virginia rail
95. Willow flycatcher
96. Wood duck
97. Crowned Night-heron
98. Yellow warbler
99. Black Bear
100. Bobcat
101. Canadian Lynx
102. Eastern cougar
103. eastern coyote
104. Grey fox
105. Grey wolf
106. Moose
107. Red Fox
108. White Tailed Deer
109. Allegheny Wood rat
110. American Marten
111. Beaver
112. Mink
113. Raccoon
114. River Otter
115. Striped Skunk
116. Diamond backed terrapin
117. Brown Bullhead Catfish
118. White Catfish
119. Channel Catfish
120. Ocean Run Alewife
121. Blueback Herring
122. Hickory Shad
123. Eastern Chick Beetle
124. Cottonwood Borer
125. Big Dipper Firefly
126. Net-Winged Beetle
127. American Carrion Beetle
128. Solider Beetle
129. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
130. Oyster Mushroom
131. Hen of the Woods
132. Earth Worm
133. American Bumble Bee
134. Box Elder Bug
135. Monarch Butterfly
136. Tent Caterpillars
137. Northeastern Beach Tiger Beetle
138. Karner Blue Butterfly
139. Nine Spotted Lady Bug

 More Westcott walls await. It is time to start planning the next mural.

Syracuse, NY.  Westcott Street  walls await murals.  photos: Samuel D. Gruber