WEST HARTFORD — Come Juneteenth, a new mural is expected to be unveiled in town as part of a larger effort to promote diversity across Connecticut.
The overall effort — called the MLK39: Racial Equity Mural Tour — aims to have at least 39 murals across participating municipalities done by next year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a number reflecting the years King lived. The art is aimed to “represent the diversity of our communities and highlight local and national Civil Rights leaders,” according to a blog post.
The town of Manchester had the first mural. Matt Conway — who founded the RiseUP Group, an organization that has a project known as CT Murals — said there hadn’t initially been plans for it to spread further, but community support propelled them forward. CT Murals is also undergoing a rebrand to be called RiseUp for Arts.
“Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country, even though we vote Democrat most of the time,” he said. “ ... We thought this mural project is a great way to give a platform and give voice to individuals of color in mostly white-dominated communities, and continue that conversation of racial equality.”
And the effort grew. More than 30 communities “are in some form of planning,” according to Conway, and the idea has “taken off like wildfire.”
Other mural unveilings are also expected on June 19, including Torrington, Bloomfield, New Haven, and they’d be “pretty much tripling the size” of the Manchester one, Conway said. The reveals will be livestreamed.
After getting a mural-related email from Conway, Mayor Shari Cantor wanted to see the initiative pursued in her community.
“I thought, ‘Wow, what a great idea. Great project,’” she said. “And I sent it right to (Town Manager) Matt Hart and I said, ‘I want to do this. Where can we do this?’”
Discussions continued from there and, ultimately, the mural — which will be painted onto part of the Noah Webster Library’s exterior — is expected to be unveiled during a Juneteenth celebration in town, according to a news release.
The library is a place Cantor said she will “sometimes refer to as the kitchen of our community.”
“It is a place where everyone is welcome, everyone gathers,” she said. “There’s all different kinds of discussions that happen in the kitchen and in the library. ... I would say it’s nourishing, and every age, there’s something for every single person.”
In a sketch, artist Corey Pane made a blue backdrop with King staring forward, his arms linked with two hands of different skin tones at his sides. It also included symbolisms such as a peace sign colored red, a nod to Bloody Sunday.
Pane said he’d try to maintain the “same basic” idea, and add to it further. According to a CT Murals blog post, Margaret E. Morton, Harriet Tubman and state Rep. Tammy Exum could also be recognized in the work. Morton was the state’s first Black female legislator.
There are multiple entities involved in the mural’s development process in West Hartford, one of which is Concerned Parents of Color of West Hartford. Adrienne Billings-Smith, a founder of the group, said she loved the idea.
“It’s a bold and beautiful move by the town to want to do something like this and recognizing people that have helped build this community and honoring Dr. King, while also honoring some of our local heroes and firsts,” she said.
And the mural is just one part of the initiative. Conway said there would also be “racial equality and Kingian nonviolence training” in participating communities with The Connecticut Center for Nonviolence.
Another aim of the project is to “develop more mural artists in the state,” Conway said. There’s an option to apply to be a lead artist or part of an artist team, or as an emerging artist, on an organization website. It’s a process that the website says would prioritize artists of color who are from Connecticut.
“If you go to New York City, Philly, out to the West Coast — San Francisco, Oakland — there’s just a ton of opportunity for artists of color to do this type of large-scale mural work, and there’s a lot of arts organizations that are doing this work. But it’s been lacking in Connecticut, the land of steady habits,” Conway said.
Conway said there’s some nationally known mural artists working on the project, and the aim would be to “leverage their experience to train up” emerging artists of color.
“Hopefully, our goal is, by mural 30 or 35, some of these initial emerging artists of color have some more experience to maybe lead one of the murals later this year,” he said. “So it’s really about giving artists of color that training and exposure to be able to feel confident in doing professional mural work beyond, or as they go on in their art career.”
Members of the community are also encouraged to try their hand at painting “during a ‘Paint-by-Numbers’ volunteer day,” according to the news release.
The West Hartford mural endeavor recently surpassed a $12,500 fundraising goal. Sustainable CT will also contribute $7,500, Conway said.
Coming out of this effort, Conway hopes conversations about racial segregation “really becomes forefront,” and that history “gets told the right way.” He also wants to see communities learn more about the civil rights movement, including civil rights leaders in Connecticut.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of history in each of our communities in Connecticut that needs to be told,” he said. “Really hoping that individuals in each of these towns really learn about that and really take steps forward to reintegrate our communities, or integrate our communities to begin with, and to give voice to people of color to feel welcome in our state.”