Yonkers Mural Inspires Community

Blog Post Written By Karen Tumelty

The phone rang in my office last Monday morning. It was Chris St. Lawrence from the Yonkers Mayor’s Office and he had an idea that he wanted to run by me. We were leading up to Yonkers Arts Weekend(which was this past weekend and was amazing) and Chris wanted to put a local photography collective called BleedCulture together with an Australian street artist named Damien Mitchell who is currently working out of Brooklyn to create a mural representing families in South West Yonkers. Could they use the wall on the side of our building Philipsburgh Hall?

Sounds cool, right?

You have no idea!

This project made sense on so many different levels. Philipsburgh Hall was built in 1904 in the center of what was then a bustling, affluent community. In many ways, it was the social center of the area. Through the 20th century, as factories closed and industry disappeared from the downtown, the building was a vivid symbol of the deterioration of our neighborhoods. In 2001, Greyston restored and reopened the building. The apartments on the upper floors are affordable and the ground floor and ballroom are home to an excellent Indian restaurant and catering hall.

I hopped on my cell phone and checked out BleedCulture on Instagram and their images were vivid, passionate and extremely moving. BleedCulture is a group of young artists who live right up the hill from Greyston Bakery. They use their cell phones to capture images of their reality, their community and the world.

When I checked out the painter, Damien Mitchell’s, website I knew that this was something we absolutely had to do. Damien has painted all over the world and his images are joyful and clever. Damien is from a small town in rural Australia. He moved to Prague as a teen and has found his way to Brooklyn and, this weekend, to Yonkers.

We narrowed down the image for the mural to two choices and our staff voted on the one that would have the biggest impact.

Early Saturday afternoon, the work began. I met up with Damien and Chris in the parking lot next to the wall and after getting some cars moved and some cones placed, Damien started mapping out his canvas.

Within what seemed like a few minutes, the mural started to emerge.

I found that I was having a hard time leaving. I didn’t want to hover and interfere with Damien’s artistic process but it was intriguing. I finally left to go grab us some lunch (tacos if you must know) and when I came back around the corner I saw this.

And I started to cry. It was so beautiful and joyful.

By the time the sun was going down, half the mural was done and we packed up and went home.

On Sunday morning, I was up and out early. There was still a lot of Yonkers Arts Weekend to see and I wanted to check out some of the other work that was showing. All of the empty store fronts in our neighborhood had suddenly become art galleries. There were more murals happening, there were things for kids and families to do together, the local artists’ studios were all open and music filled the air. There was even a piece of artwork in the Hudson.

I found my way back to our site pretty quickly to find Damien starting on the child’s face. At first he didn’t know I was there. It was early in the day and there weren’t a lot of people around yet so I leaned back and watched the artist at work. Bopping away to whatever was on his ear buds and jumping up and down his ladder to get everything just right. It was like watching magic.

The crowd started to form again and here’ s the moment that I realized that something bigger than just this painting was happening. People were talking to each other. Strangers!! On the street!! About art!!!

After a while I wandered over to Main Street to check out BleedCulture’s gallery. I didn’t think my weekend could get any better but it did. The photographers and musicians of BleedCulture work with what they have. They use cellphones for the images and their work is printed on plain white paper and was hanging on the walls with push pins.

In my mind, Art (with a capital A) equals money. Paints and canvases are expensive. Marble and bronze are expensive. This work, however, was asset-less. There were no fancy frames or costly techniques. It was pure vision and it was profound. I don’t know the backgrounds of the young men I was with. I don’t know how educated they are or what their lives have been like. And I hope that I am not so arrogant as to presume to know anything about them. But I take Open Hiring very seriously and I do my best to apply it to my life every day. Meeting people in the moment and experiencing who we both are, right here, right now, feels very good to me.

Our conversation turned from their art to the fact that our community is one of poverty. These amazing artists recognize that, but they also believe, rightfully so, that although our community lacks economic assets, it is rich with cultural, spiritual and community assets. And that is a big part of what they are expressing in their art. Using these areas of untapped affluence to impact our economics is something that we found we had in common. That was the second time I cried.

We all headed back over to the mural site to check out the progress. The crowd watching had grown so Damien took a break from the wall to paint some t-shirts and skate boards for the people who had gathered.

The sense of community that had grown on that corner was amazing. At some point, my boyfriend called to find me and, although I could see him from where I was, I couldn’t seem to direct him to turn in the right direction to see me waving from three blocks away. As a local guy passed me, he turned around and said “Are you talking to that guy in the brown t-shirt? I’m heading down that way and I’ll send him up.” He arrived just in time to pull his tool bag out of the car and help some skate board kids get the wheels off their boards so they could get tagged.

Gabe was thrilled!

As the day wound down, the mural was complete and we all packed up and went home. I believe that we went home changed somehow by this. I can only speak for myself but I experienced freedom of expression and freedom of experience firsthand. I was surrounded by courage and positive actions. I met interesting people who, on paper, I had nothing in common with and felt the rush of the connection of deep humanity. By the time I got home, I was too happy to cry.