Every time Sophia Mirabal sees people stop and look at the two large-scale murals in downtown Lowell that celebrate the city’s history and diversity, she feels a surge of pride.
As interns for Project LEARN last summer, Mirabel and fellow Lowell High School junior Anisett Bonet scouted locations for the murals as part of the ArtUp initiative to make them accessible in Lowell’s neighborhoods. They also developed a community survey and spoke at a meeting of the Lowell Historic Board.
“It was really exciting to be part of something that is such a visible part of the city. You don’t have to have an interest in art to be in awe of [the murals],” Mirabal said. “It’s nice to see everyone’s work to highlight Lowell’s diversity pay off in a way that is cherished by everyone.”
David Zayas, a Puerto Rican fine artist and activist, painted his mural on the side of 207 Market St., overlooking the parking lot of the Athenian Corner restaurant.
Evaristo Angurria, a Dominican fine artist, graphic designer, and activist, created his mural in Gates Block Garden at 167 Dutton St., which is home to Community Teamwork’s Youth Opportunity Center.
LZ Nunn, executive director of Project LEARN (Lowell Education Alliance Resource Network), said the outpouring of public support since both murals were installed over a 10-day period in the Downtown Lowell Historic District is gratifying — and precisely the intended outcome.
Following approval by the Lowell Historic Board in mid-September, seed funding was granted by local arts philanthropist Nancy L. Donahue. Other partners included Beyond Walls of Lynn, Community Teamwork, the Lowell Public Schools, Lowell Community Health Center, Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell, Refuge Lowell, BRM Production Management, and Gallagher & Cavanaugh LLP.
Nunn said the murals, which are visible on both sides downtown, make a “stunning impact” while reflecting immigrant residents’ stories and experiences.
“Spanish is the home language for over 30 percent of Lowell students, so having their heritage reflected on the walls of their city is powerful,” she said. “I hope everyone who views [the murals] experiences a moment of joy and contemplation. They were a passion project for our organizations, but the beautification of public space and sense of dignity they instill is something everyone can feel proud of.”
When Cathy Mercado learned in September that Zayas was painting one of the murals, she and a coworker purchased some city-themed gifts from the Lowell National Historical Park and headed to meet him on the job at 207 Market St.
Mercado, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Housing Partnership, said an appreciative Zayas kindly agreed with her suggestion to incorporate a Puerto Rican flag into the 50-foot-tall image. Yet for Mercado, a Lowell resident whose parents came from Puerto Rico in the 1960s, viewing the final design weeks later felt overwhelming.
“I’m very proud of being American, but when I saw the Puerto Rican flag, I cried,” said Mercado.
Representing the city’s largest Latinx population with more than 12,000 residents, his mural also includes traditional symbols such as the flor de maga (the national flower of Puerto Rico) and a rooster signifying strength.
“Our community has always been underrepresented here in regard to arts and culture, so it means a lot that [Zayas] put up our flag for everyone in the city to see,” Mercado added. “It says we’re here.”
Lowell resident Ileana Arias was excited to bring her 9-year-old daughter, Madison, to view the 50-foot-tall mural by Angurria, with whom she went to college at Universidad APEC in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic
The mural at 167 Dutton St. honors the historic role of Mechanic’s Hall as an abolitionist meeting place during the 1850s within a barbershop operated by Nathaniel Booth, who had escaped from slavery. In addition, Angurria’s iconic “rollo” imagery celebrates the everyday beauty of Dominican and Afro-Latinx women while paying tribute to his own mother, who owned a hair salon in the Dominican Republic.
Arias, who immigrated to the United States at age 26 for a master’s degree program, said “it feels good” every time she drives by the familiar Dominican scene created in her adopted city by an artist whose work she has continued to admire from afar on Instagram.
“I lived in the Dominican Republic for most of my life, and this mural is another connection to my country which I’m so proud to be from,” said Arias, noting that her mother responded to her texted photo by requesting to see the mural in person when she visits next summer. “I appreciate these efforts to showcase different cultures through art. Lowell continues to move forward and get better and better.”
Beyond Walls founder and CEO Al Wilson, who has previously worked with Zayas and Angurria on similar projects in Lynn, said they were tied as the highest-ranked artists among 96 applicants for the Lowell murals. He believes the subsequent broad support will inspire other owners to offer their buildings for future installations, with added bonuses of increased foot traffic and spending at local restaurants and businesses.
“Murals are quite the production,” Wilson said, “which is why it’s critical for building owners to witness the process and see the quality of the art, the size and scale, and the community response. It’s that combination that brings more people to the table.”
In fact, Community Teamwork Chief Program Officer Carl Howell said Angurria’s mural spanning its Youth Opportunity Center complements recent recognition from the National Park Service for the building’s role in the Underground Railroad.
“One of many beautiful things is when people look at this three-story-tall woman and say that looks like my aunt, or my sister, or my grandmother,” Howell said. “There isn’t a lot of artwork downtown that represents the Afro-Latinx community, never mind on that scale. It’s in line with the huge collaborative effort to make Lowell a more welcoming city, which needs to be known.”
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at email@example.com.