Laura Minot shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun and gazed up at the 45-feet-tall mural. The focal point of the piece — a blown-up photo of her face that had been glued to the wall — was missing, a casualty of a bad storm a few days before.
Still, the artwork was much bigger than she expected.
“I didn’t realize it was this public,” Minot said. “At first I was a little nervous, but I was OK with it in the end because I’ll stand up for women all day long.”
Minot is currently a resident at McGrath House, a 30-bed halfway center for adult female offenders in the South End.
The mural was inspired by the experiences of those women. Called “See Her,” it is the first piece in a public art series, Year of the Woman, funded by the nonprofit Now and There. Featuring swaths of fluorescent red and a striking black-and-white maze-like design, it’s located at 808 Tremont St., in the South End.
Ann Lewis, the Detroit artist behind the mural, said she took this project because of her commitment to illuminating social issues through her art.
When she arrived in Boston, she met with Kate Gilbert, the executive director of Now and There, and brainstormed ideas for the artwork. Gilbert gave Lewis freedom to pick a topic she felt strongly about, as long as the artwork reflected an issue that affects Bostonians. The artist decided to look into women’s issues and mass incarceration as possible subjects. Eventually, she stumbled across McGrath House through Community Resources for Justice, a social-justice nonprofit organization.
“Mass incarceration as an issue does not often include women in the conversation,” Lewis said. “When your communities are over-policed, it’s easy for you to disappear. When you lose a dad, a mom, or a relative, the family support system falls apart.”
Because she had seen the power of creativity while holding art classes for teenage defendants in New York, Lewis said she felt confident that the halfway center was the right starting point for the artwork.
She organized a workshop at McGrath and paid the women for their time and creative energy. Together they made collages with pictures from magazines that represented what they hoped life after leaving McGrath would look like.
Lewis used many of the images that came up in the women’s collages, such as a staircase, to conceptualize the design for the mural. She primed the wall and painted it before starting the wheatpasting process. Minot’s story in particular inspired Lewis, so she selected her portrait as the centerpiece for the artwork.
The process of getting the mural up has not been easy. Gilbert worked with the Landmarks Commission and even spoke with the mayor’s office to get the necessary permits. Lewis battled sweltering afternoons, strong breezes, and the occasional shower — often in a cherry picker — to glue the laser-printed images to the wall. She frequently worked 14-hour days, using a light rigged to the platform after sunset to make sure everything was pasted precisely.
Gilbert said the mural will be finished by July 18. She estimated the cost of the entire project to be $25,000.
“This has been a labor of love,” she said with a laugh.
“And determination,” Lewis chimed in.
Within the maze, the artist has hidden a word laden with meaning for the McGrath residents — choice. It represents the decisions the women will have to make after their sentences end to become thriving members of their communities, as well as the choices their communities have to make to support them.
“Making the right choice isn’t always easy,” said Stephanie Schump, a McGrath resident. “They don’t know what we’ve been through to do the things we did to get to where we are. Sometimes you have to ask for help. That’s a hard thing to do.”
Many of the McGrath women, including Minot, said they feel ashamed because of how their choices have affected their families. It’s now harder than ever for them to get jobs. Most of them have children at home. One said she lies to her youngest son because she does not want him to know where she really is.
“Who wants a mother who’s been in prison? It’s embarrassing for our kids,” Minot said. “It’s just not fair to them that they have to give me support in this situation.”
They all stressed that their experiences are vastly different from those of male offenders, and that the resources provided are simply not adequate. Lisa Chute, the assistant program director at McGrath House, said women always feel like they have more to lose when they go to prison.
“I don’t think people understand the impact this has on the family dynamic,” she said. “It affects women differently than men, being taken away from your kids like that. It hurts deep.”
But Minot said she believes women are more motivated to turn their lives around after their sentences because they have more on the line. She doesn’t plan on going back to prison and is currently searching for a job.
“Some people just don’t care, and those are the people who need the most help. We can send a really big message because we’re mothers,” Minot said. “We actually care. I hope people can really see that in the mural and put it towards a positive direction.”