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Vivid banners of FenceART bring inspiration to Newton’s neighborhoods

Seanna McGraw, 20, poses in front of the 2019/20 FenceART banner with her photograph "Mathare School Uniforms, Nairobi."Cynthia Clark

One of Cynthia Clark’s most vivid childhood memories is her first open-casket funeral. Now 69, the Newton resident has spent time photographing local and monumental cemeteries across the world ― from village graveyards to Paris, Buenos Aires, Bonaventure in Savannah, Ga., and the Garden of Unborn Children in Japan. Her latest work is now featured in Newton’s public art program, FenceART.

As a joint project of Newton Community Pride and Newton Open Studios, FenceART selects and displays 20 works on banners across the city each year, bringing vibrant and engaging high-quality art to Newton neighborhoods, according to Newton Open Studios. The banners travel to five public fence locations and rotate until each work has visited every site.

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The amateur photographer’s winning piece, “Novodevichy Niche Grave,” was shot in Moscow four years ago, where Clark photographed a decorated grave of a mother and son who died in 1942 and 1940, respectively.

“I saw a wall of niche graves of regular people, some couples, some mother and sons, and I was really struck by the few who had fresh flowers stuck on and in them even now, though they date back to the 1930s and ’40s,” Clark said.

So she took out her camera and went back to the cemetery two more times until she captured the “right, somber but dignified” tone.

Upon her return, she submitted the photograph to FenceART. When the piece won in 2019 — after Clark’s three previous entries were not successful — her granddaughter Seanna McGraw’s photograph, “Mathare School Uniforms, Nairobi,” won the same year.

McGraw’s work shows blue and red dresses hanging to dry on a safe house roof of a school in Nairobi. The 20-year-old took the photograph while visiting the school in the Mathare Valley slum in the summer of 2018.

Clark has helped develop her granddaughter’s photographs and encouraged her to enter them into art shows in Newton, including FenceART. Photography has been a rich part of their relationship for many years since their first trip abroad, Clark said.

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While McGraw said her grandmother’s appreciation of travel and passion for photography have been very inspirational, she was hesitant to share her own works at first.

“Having my photo chosen to be shared with my community through FenceART validated that my photos really are art and are appreciated by more than just my close friends and family,” McGraw said. “Being in this show with my grandmother makes this opportunity even more special to me, since she has had such a large impact on my journey to this point.”

This year marks the first time that the program contains a grandmother/granddaughter set of photographs since its launch in 2015.

Willard McGraw, 84, Clark’s husband, said even though the FenceART project is happening in a small city with a limited budget, it is unique and wonderful. Both his wife and granddaughter have gotten good feedback from the public, he said.

“Volunteer crews rotate the banners from one location to the next, and while doing so, always get comments from passing pedestrians, letting them know how much the public enjoys the art and look forward to the new banners going up,” Willard McGraw said.

Ellen Fisher, director of Newton Open Studios, said people interact with temporary art far differently than with permanent art.

“Whether beloved or challenging, you know the art will be gone in a few weeks,” she said. “So, temporariness generates a willingness to experience a much broader range of styles and content, plus an anticipation for what will come next.”

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To date, 100 banners have been selected, printed, hung, rotated, retired, and either gone home to the artists or lived a second life. In 2017, former Mayor Setti Warren requested that a selection of retired banners be hung in the executive office of Newton City Hall for a year. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller has continued the tradition.

The 2019/20 banners are on public display from October 2019 through mid-September 2020.

Some of the other works include Grey Held’s picture poem “Amarillis,” Howard Fineman’s photograph “Nested Arches, Mexico,” and Nick Read’s painting, “Dogs.”

To Clark, public art means the community cares and shares its own talent in unusual ways outside the gallery. “[For this reason,] The FenceART project is really important to Newton and to me,” she said.

The project is supported this year by a grant from the Newton and Massachusetts cultural councils, with additional funding from Newton Community Pride and Newton Open Studios.

Residents can now find Clark and Seanna McGraw’s works at the Newton Free Library and Watertown Street at Bridge Street, respectively. Other banner locations include Newton Senior Center, Good Shepherd Church, and Newton Cemetery.

More information is available at NewtonCommunityPride.org/FenceART.

Hyerim Seo can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.