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New murals in Holyoke, Northampton reflect local communities

This summer, buildings in Holyoke, Chicopee and Florence, Massachusetts, are sporting freshly-painted murals by local and international artists. Some of this public art reflects the communities where they are seen.

In Holyoke, a new mural, stretched across the side of the YMCA building, depicts a pair of brightly-colored hands reaching towards the sky. The artist, who goes by the name, Repoe9, explained what the hands hold for him.

"Giving hope for people that just going through the struggle basically. You know let the colors just uplift them," he said.

Repoe, who usually does graffiti art, said he went through a boat-load of paint for this 38 by 23 foot mural — using several bright hues.

"The color pattern just brings out the vibes. It just brings out good energy," he said.

This is one of 18 murals going up this summer in Holyoke and Chicopee. Most of the artists are from other countries such as Portugal, Poland and the Dominican Republic. Organized by the Lynn-based nonprofit "Beyond Walls," CEO Al Wilson said the work "activates" spaces, drawing people to the art and he hopes local businesses.

"How do we get more people walking around downtown Holyoke and South Holyoke taking in the art? [If you can] get people doing that, maybe they'll stop and grab a cup of coffee, maybe they'll meet up and then grab a lunch," he said.

On Friday, in Florence, artist Rochelle Shicoff, instructed volunteers on how to apply paint to a 20 foot wide mural on the wall of a paint store, next to a bike path. On that day, it was mostly in pencil, and was just getting painted.

"If it needs a double coat, let it dry. Don't keep going over it because you're just smushing around the paint," she said.

The mural is called "Action: A History of Florence." It traces the history of Florence, a village of Northampton, from the time when only Indigenous people lived here, to the 19th century when abolitionists were active and mills dominated the economy, to today's Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity and the Cloverdale Cooperative Preschool.

Shicoff points out that it features key historical figures, such as Sojourner Truth and Lydia Maria Child.

"Four portraits of abolitionists, who used to speak in, what was called, 'the grove.' So Deb, who's sitting on the ground, is putting in all the pine trees."

A design team of volunteers and artists from the region researched the history last summer.

Nancy Meagher, of Amherst, a member of the design team, points out a chair in the mural. It survived the 1874 flood, caused by a failed dam. A torrent of water poured down from Williamsburg, killing nearly 140 people, depositing all kinds of things in Florence.

"There's a famous historic photograph of people holding up this chair that made it through and landed in the Florence meadows," said Meagher. "I love that chair. "

About nine volunteers faced the wall painting, including Jonathan Weil and his 11-year-old daughter, Maddie Weil. They were focused on a ribbon of green that winds through the mural. It's the Mill River where they sometimes swim — and which once powered the local economy.

"The idea of being part of a mural that captures some of that history seemed like a cool summer thing to do," Jonathan Weil said. "The fact that we'll ride or walk by on the path and see this and recognize that we were a part of it — it just seemed like a cool thing to do."

Cool, but also hot this steamy season — and wet. Painting was cancelled at least one day because of rain. But there's still time to grab a paint brush. The work continues into next week.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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