Every summer since 1996, high school students from Somerville have explored the Mystic River Watershed and painted what they saw, adding their artwork to the now 1,000-foot-long Mystic River Mural.
The mural stretches along the Interstate 93 retaining wall adjacent to Mystic Avenue and Shore Drive in Somerville.
Nearby residents and passing motorists can view the beautiful summer scenes at any time of year as they walk or drive along the busy roadways. Birds and butterflies, trees and wildflowers, fish and turtles and other wildlife, as well as people canoeing and fishing and exploring the watershed are portrayed in vibrant, colorful, larger-than-life panels that enliven this urban area.
“The mural educates the public about urban nature in an urban center, and the people who live here,” said David Fichter, mural artist and director of the Mystic River Mural Project. “Commuters stuck at traffic lights have told me that they see different parts of the mural every day as they go back and forth to work. It’s a nice respite from commuting.”
Fichter said the mural project was initiated in 1996 by the Somerville Arts Council, whose director was Cecily Miller. Community activists, including Lisa Bruchilachio, and the Mystic River Watershed Association, also were involved.
“Cecily felt the mural could play a role in reconnecting Somerville with the Mystic River that had been cut off when I-93 was built back in the ’60s,” said Fichter. “We also wanted to employ youth in creating the art, and in particular youth who lived in the Mystic River Apartment [complex].”
The arts council also hired Scott Carpenter, a biology teacher from Lexington High, as its first environmental educator.
“We were not initially planning to continue the mural beyond the first year,” said Fichter. “But every year the project expanded and continued.”
Ten students are hired each summer through the Somerville Arts Council, currently directed by Greg Jenkins.
The first two weeks of the project are spent on field trips so the students can learn about the Mystic River Watershed and get images and ideas for new mural panels.
“We teach the kids about water quality, river bank restoration, etc.,” said Ivy Mlsna, Life Scientist and Environmental Educator for the Environmental Protection Agency in Boston. “They become more familiar with their backyard and the animals and plants that live there.”
Students also canoe the river, said Fichter, and imagery from that experience often ends up in the mural.
Every year’s mural segment focuses on a different theme.
“One year we went fishing and whatever we caught ended up getting painted into the mural — sunfish, yellow perch, etc.,” said Fichter. “One year we did mammals, and we painted a red fox we saw by Horn Pond [in Woburn].”
Fichter said they even did micro-organisms one year.
“We collected water samples and looked at them under microscopes, and we put the stuff we saw into the murals,” said Fichter.
This year the group chose native wildflowers and pollinators as the main theme, said Fichter, because of the critical importance of pollination to maintenance of wild ecosystems.
“Without pollination by insects such as bees, butterflies, and wasps, many plants would not be able to reproduce and would quickly die out,” said Fichter.
The panels are usually around 4 feet wide and 8 feet high, and are painted in a studio before being installed on the mural by the Somerville Department of Public Works. There are currently 250 panels.
Bianca Oppedisano, a senior at Somerville High School, said the things she likes best about the project are the field trips and spending time with new friends. She said the group took trips to the Mystic Lakes, the Middlesex Fells, and went canoeing up the Mystic River.
“I learned a lot about plants and animals and how they interact,” said Oppedisano. “I learned stuff they don’t teach you in school. It’s cool to get out and actually see what you’re talking about, and not just stare at a whiteboard and do work sheets.”
Oppedisano painted a scene with puff balls — a type of mushroom — and a chipmunk for her panel.
Nehemie Simon, a freshman at Somerville High School who was busy painting black-eyed Susan flowers on his panel, said the mural project was his first summer job.
He said what he liked best about the project was getting paid to do something he loved, and also going places and exploring.
“Horn Pond was my favorite place,” said Simon. “I saw a lot of things there — a muskrat, lots of plants, mushrooms, and geese and ducks.”
Leslie Nava, who graduated from Somerville High this year, painted a panel with a monarch butterfly caterpillar and milkweed, which the caterpillars feed on. She said she wanted to leave something behind in Somerville before she left for college this fall to study engineering.
Nava, who is originally from Mexico, said one of the things she liked most about the project was that she got to meet everyone, and got to share other cultures.
“We’re all different,” said Nava, “but we’re all working on this project together.”
Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to firstname.lastname@example.org.