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Amid pandemic, a blank wall in Newtonville blooms with public art

Destiny Palmer painted the mural, "Reflecting Inward," near 28 Austin St.
Destiny Palmer painted the mural, "Reflecting Inward," near 28 Austin St.New Art Center in Newton

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Newton community members are investing in public art to create new connections and conversations.

Paula Gannon, director of Cultural Development for the City of Newton, said that art is crucial in a time like this.

“In the environment we’re in, it’s going to be even more important, as art is such a healing concept for people,” Gannon said. “So looking to art to help us as a community to get through the pandemic, but then also, what’s on the other side of it, as we begin to emerge and heal.”

Newtonville’s 28 Austin St. mixed-use development brought art to the community with a mural competition, which transformed a blank wall into a canvas. Scott Oran, principal of Austin Street Partners, along with his wife Meryl Kessler spearheaded the initiative.

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The competition began over the summer, when Kessler — who also co-founded Newton’s annual Halloween window-painting competition — sought out artists nationwide via social media to apply. Kessler wrote in an e-mail that 25 artists submitted applications, which consisted of a digital image or rendering of the proposed mural, along with an artist statement, samples and other items.

By the end of August, Boston artist Destiny Palmer was announced the winner.

Kessler said in an interview it was important to get the ball rolling on the competition so the mural could be finalized and give people something to connect with during the pandemic, which has led to “isolation.”

“And at the same time,” she said, the coronavirus “has made our outdoor spaces even more important, because those are spaces where we feel that we can gather safely, where we can connect with people.”

Palmer, middle school art teacher at Thayer Academy, finished her abstract mural Sept. 6 and — after the fact — titled it “Reflecting Inward.” Palmer said passersby often asked her what the mural represented, but she didn’t have one answer.

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“There’s so many textile histories that are embedded in that mural,” Palmer said. “There’s so many color histories that are embedded in that mural. And it’s really just to get people to stop, take a breath and look at things a little differently.”

The piece, Palmer said, like so many of her other works, is rooted in color. Palmer said people associate certain places, objects, and other people with certain colors. She said viewers can find something personal mirrored in the piece rather than trying to find a tangible or identifiable inspiration.

Gannon said the culture of Newton is rooted in artwork, in part, because of Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s art initiatives.

In addition to the mural, Gannon said the city also worked on a public art project that helped local restaurants spruce up their outdoor dining spaces. The project, called Newton Al Fresco, joined artists together to paint concrete barriers that block off sections of road to be used by restaurants, among other things.

“What we’re looking to do is to create an environment of community,” Gannon said. “And the arts is the way to do it.”

Emily O’Neil, executive director of the New Art Center in Newton, was a judge on the committee that selected the mural competition winner. She said the mural was “the first bloom of spring.”

“Everything had been canceled and shut down and then all of a sudden — boom — it’s like this flower that just blooms,” O’Neil said.

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Palmer said there was a kid who watched her “every day from his window” as she painted the mural for five days.

“Dedicated, he brought a chair,” Palmer said. “He had snacks at the window. He watched the whole thing happen.”

Palmer also is scheduled to teach a class, “Gesture, Color, Painting,” at the New Art Center in Newton. It will explore abstract painting through shape and color, and O’Neil said in a text the course is set to start Oct. 12.

In November, Palmer is scheduled to teach a second course, “Painting Workshop: From Nature to Abstraction” at the Center.

The competition, Oran said, satisfied a requirement in the Special Permit for 28 Austin St., which mandated — under certain financial circumstances — the developers contribute $10,000 annually to social or cultural activities. Originally, they had planned to hold live music in the plaza, but Oran said the group had to get creative when COVID-19 hit.

In the future, Oran said he hopes Austin Street Partners can invite musicians when it’s safe again, and added that there are plenty of other blank walls in the area that are potential “canvases for beautiful works of street art.”

“My guess is we could bring joy and wonder and excitement and discussion and dialogue to all sorts of places,” Oran said.

Kessler said she hopes people will sit in the plaza and gain peace of mind from the art.

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“I thought it would be a great conversation piece for people sitting in the plaza because you can see lots of different things in her design,” Kessler said, pointing to how “an abstract piece really stimulates our imagination.”

On a recent Saturday in September, Faith Park, 41, a Newtonville resident, said the mural reminds her of “female empowerment,” because the shapes seem to create a woman.

Jim Bogardus, 27, who lives in Newton Centre, said that he thinks the design is reminiscent of “rugs and blankets from Mexican culture.”

Newtonville resident Sarah Kelly, 25, and former Newton resident Ciara Williams, 25, were sitting in the plaza, and the mural’s “bright color,” Williams said, drew her in. Before leaving, they decided to stop and take selfies in front of the mural.

Kelly said the mural is completely “on brand” for her, and she hopes that Newton continues to promote art, especially with all the “bland” surrounding buildings.

The “effort being put into making the spaces more comfortable,” Williams said, by incorporating art into the community makes braving the pandemic a bit easier.

Melissa Ellin can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.

“There’s so many textile histories that are embedded in that mural,” Palmer said of her work, titled "Reflecting Inward."
“There’s so many textile histories that are embedded in that mural,” Palmer said of her work, titled "Reflecting Inward."Melissa Ellin