Let’s say you have a wall. “There are two major approaches to mural painting,” explains Elizabeth Cespedes, a Brown junior who has considerable experience with such matters. “Some are planned and largely painted by a master artist, who has a crew of artists who transfer the image and paint it.” Others, she says, are more “process-based.”
Cespedes took the latter approach when given a chance to create a mural on a large wall opposite Providence’s Central and Classical high schools. She recruited local teenagers to canvass the neighborhood, interviewing and photographing residents, many of them homeless, about the city. “I didn’t have a set image,” she says. “I wanted a crew [to] come up with a master collage as a group.”
As a teenager herself, Cespedes had worked on the Boston Mural Program, so she was familiar with the idea of community-based art. Envisioning a mural painted by Providence teens, she approached New Urban Arts, a nonprofit that provides free art classes to local youth. They supported the project and offered her the perfect wall. She received a Starr National Service Fellowship through Brown’s Swearer Center and free paint from Adler’s, a local hardware store.
“We tried to take inspiration from the responses we got, but we also wanted to represent the evolution of the West Side,” Cespedes says. So she and her volunteers researched photographs of the neighborhood dating as far back as 1890. The completed mural incorporates images of historical buildings, a steelworker, people of a variety of races and ethnicities, and portraits of the individuals Cespedes and her crew interviewed.“The point of the mural was the process of building community,” says Cespedes, “bringing a lot of people into the planning process through research and interviews, and just from working outside. People are walking by all the time, and they want to know who you are, why you’re painting this, and what it’s about. Over the course of the summer, I watched the kids really be able to respond to that articulately and with the confidence to represent themselves.”