Murals bring vibrant colors, culture to Newark neighborhoods

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on June 24, 2016

Mural seen as you drive along Clinton Avenue in Newark near the corner of Jeliff Avenue. Newark has 39 murals throughout the city and they've been around for about seven years. But there's been a push by this administration, since the Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is big on the arts, to have art flourish along neighborhood corridors. They've focused on the Clinton Avenue in the South Ward and plan to hit other areas in the coming months. The goal is to revitalize neighborhoods through art.
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Jacqueline Sanders doesn't know where the two girls came from.

She sees them everyday from her daughter's bedroom window, which faces Newark's Jeliff avenue.

They're in a vacant lot, looking at each other, holding each other's face lovingly.

"Wow,'' Sanders said.

This is what art does. It's supposed to evoke feelings.  And this mural, on the side of a building facing Clinton Avenue, does just that as part of a  city sponsored program to revitalize neighborhoods through art

The image of one girl blends into an auburn sunset filled with clouds.  A ray of light shines from her hand, which is touching the hair of the other girl, whose image is cast in what appears to be moonlight.

"Whoever is doing this can draw,'' Sanders said.

Murals are not new to Newark. There are at least 40 scattered throughout the city's five wards in the program that started seven years ago.

But Mayor Ras Baraka's administration made a push this past year to target neglected neighborhood corridors with an infusion of art as the anchor for economic growth and social transformation.

This is more than a picture on a wall. These murals dominate the landscape at several intersections along Clinton Avenue, the first thoroughfare  chosen for a splash of color.

"We're going to do that everywhere,'' Baraka said. "In most communities that experience serious revitalization, most of them do it with art and culture. I think we need to beautify our community through art, but also use art as a kind of social and cultural message to transform people's thinking.''

Over the years, the majority of Newark's public art scene has consisted of statues and monuments in downtown areas, which many of us walk past without a second thought.

Murals don't allow us to ignore them.

Take a ride along McCarter Highway. A visual treat that pays homage to the city's history is waiting for you.

There are a series of murals dubbed "Portraits'' that decorate Amtrak's retention wall for 1.39 miles. The Newark Downtown District, a privately funded, nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing downtown, spearheaded this massive project to adorn points of entry into the city. The job involved 18 artists, creating 15 distinctive pieces of work.

Aldrin Grant is a fan. The Newark resident said he was particularly impressed by one of the murals,  which features a series of children's portraits that looks like professional photographs.

"It's so real,'' Grant said.

Every wall in Newark is a blank canvas now and the city plans to use them to connect with people visually, so they can see themselves in a positive way.

"You can't walk past a three-story mural of Harriet Tubman. You can't help but see that and have a conversation,'' said Rodney Gilbert, whose Newark company, Yendor Productions, has been contracted by the city to paint some of the murals.

Tubman, an abolitionist, is next to Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political leader and proponent of Black Nationalism. Both images cover a wall on the back of an apartment building at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Hedden Terrace.

The works are therapeutic for Elois Frederick, a Newark resident who is struggling with heroin addiction. She has taken pictures of the historical figures, but she really likes the little girl with butterfly wings on a vacant building a few blocks away at Shanley Terrace. She snapped a picture of that image, too, along with  a mural of African Moors and two leopards painted on the back of the same building.

"It's uplifting,'' she said. "It helps me."

Down the street, there's a pensive portrait of Malcolm X and the mayor's father, the  late Amiri Baraka, who was a poet and playwright. At the corner of Chadwick and Hawthorne avenues, the  "My Brother's Keeper"  mural has a lot going on. A young man is portrayed as a college graduate, but there are an array  of smaller images showing how African-Americans have fought for equality.

"There's a point of darkness, but there's hope when you come out it,'' said Malik Jones, of Newark, describing what he sees in the mural.

Now head closer to downtown Newark. Stop when you reach Washington and Kinney streets. An explosion of color and images has revamped two dilapidated buildings.

"It looked run down, like they needed to tear it down,'' said Larry Harrell, a Newark resident.  "When you look at it now, you want to stop and check it out for awhile.''

Keith Hamilton, Newark's manager of city-owned property, said about 22 murals have been put up since last year and there are plans to expand the artistic campaign to Bergen Street, and to additional streets in the West and North wards.

Each mural has its own character, but Hamilton said the one with the girls – near Jacqueline Sanders' home – draws a lot of response.

It's on the side of a red brick building, and just about everyone who sees it has a reaction similar to Sanders. 

Her grandson, Tyree, called it "tranquil"and said it makes him feel that he's not from a bad area.

He no longer sees the tall grass in the lot."We're looking at the picture,'' he said.

L.D. Staton, of East Orange, was nearly speechless stuyding the mural of the girls. "Fascinating" and "amazing" were the words he used. His buddy, Vann Gaddie, who sells ice at the corner, said people get out of their cars and stare.

"Look how beautiful it is," Gaddie said.

Art can do that.

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