Women’s Empowerment Served À La Mode

Lucy Gellman | July 12th, 2018

Women’s Empowerment Served À La Mode

Hamden  |  Kwadwo Adae  |  Public art  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven  |  Newhallville

 10-year-old twins Ayana and Maquas Baldwin. Lucy Gellman Photos.  10-year-old twins Ayana and Maquas Baldwin. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Kwadwo Adae is working to finish his Women’s Empowerment mural by August—and got a little closer this week thanks to a flock of new recruits looking for a sweet treat.

Wednesday afternoon, Adae welcomed an ice cream truck from Ben & Jerry’s to 400 Goodrich St., where he has been painting his Women’s Empowerment mural on the side of Tri-Con Construction since mid-June. The heaping cones and cups of chocolate chip, Cherry Garcia and vanilla sorbet came as a gift from REI Co-Op, which has also granted $5,000 to the Farmington Canal Rail-to-Trail Association for the project.

Adae laid plans for the mural earlier this year, after scoring a grant from the Connecticut Office of the Arts and holding three public forums (read about those here, here and here) on the project. In late May, he began priming the wall and cleaning up the surrounding area; last month he brought in scissor lifts and began tracing and painting on the wall. Now, there’s a ticking clock: he and a creative team of artists, yogis, and educators are headed to Banos de Agua Santa, Ecuador to paint another mural at a children’s literacy center next month, and are hoping to finish the mural before they leave.

Luckily, Adae said, a steady stream of volunteers has kept him on track to finish. There are frequent visitors, including local videographer Travis Carbonella and Hamden City Council representative Justin Farmer, who grew up not far from the mural’s site and has spoken out in support of the project. There are more recent additions like Neighborhood Housing Services intern Jared Cervantes, who spent Wednesday filling in a milk crate on which an spiky-haired abeula proudly stands.

Cervantes said he’s been out at the mural site a few days a week for two weeks, watching it come together as the sky and figures are filled in with bright, declarative splashes of color.

“It sends a message that women have as much rights and as much power as everybody else does,” he said.  

But there are also new faces—especially when there’s ice cream involved. Grabbing a large paintbrush, REI Outdoor Programs and Outreach Coordinator Mason Trumble called the co-op’s support of the mural “kind of a no brainer” because of the mural’s location on a frequently-used section of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. He said that while the grant usually goes toward clearing and raking trails or building and maintaining playgrounds, a big, vibrant piece of public art is “kind of a fun change.”

And a timely one—it comes as REI rolls out its Force of Nature Fund to increase gender equity in both its own hiring practices and in outdoor sports, to “make nature the latest playing field on earth.” Trumble recalled learning about the mural’s theme after REI had already given the grant, and sensing that it was an even more perfect fit.

Around him, pint-sized summer campers from Hamden’s Youth Services Bureau huddled by the wall, dipping brushes into thick, shiny black paint and working at the mural’s base (counselors said that none of them could be photographed). Taking a break to savor her chocolate chip ice cream, 9-year-old Emanii McNatt said that she liked the design because it depicts independent women.

An aspiring nurse and math teacher—“I want to do both, but not at the same time,” she said—she singled out women of different nationalities and ages as she spoke.

 State Rep. Robyn Porter and Hamden City Council representative Justin Farmer, who has tried to make it out to the wall whenever he can.  State Rep. Robyn Porter and Hamden City Council representative Justin Farmer, who has tried to make it out to the wall whenever he can. 

“They’re all doing their own thing,” she said, running a finger through the air to point out all 14 figures pictured. “I like how it represents the Black people instead of just putting white. Sometimes, some people just get treated better than others. And because we’re girls, they think we can’t do that much.”

She said that despite growing up nearby, she hadn’t seen the mural before Wednesday. Now, she can see returning frequently to help, and to marvel at women who look like her on the wall when it is done.

So can 10-year-old twins Ayana and Maquas Baldwin, who live just streets away near Dixwell Avenue.  There with their mom (who declined to give her name), the two worked intently with two broad-tipped brushes between them, Ayana stopping every so often to make sure she wasn’t smudging paint into the carefully traced figures.

“It’s womanhood!” she exclaimed, looking over the entire mural as she spoke. “It shows you how women has power. My culture is Native American and Black, and that’s here.”

 "It’s just exciting to know that someone has invested in this community and shouted out women who made change," said Kerry Ellington. 

Just meters away, activist Kerry Ellington and State Rep. Robyn Porter rolled in at the same time, Ellington parking her bike and grabbing a brush as Porter caught up with an old colleague, and chatted with Farmer about his time working on the mural.

“It just kind of brightens me up,” said Ellington said as she dipped her brush into a large can of purple paint. “It’s in the Black community. I just get really excited to know that this type of project is happening right here, in our community."

"A lot of beautification projects happen in more privileged communities. They don’t tend to happen in marginalized Black and Brown communities. It’s just exciting to know that someone has invested in this community and shouted out women who made change.”

“What it represents feels good,” agreed State Rep. Robyn Porter, who saw the mural for the first time Wednesday. As she looked over the design, Aaron Goode tried out a few Grateful Dead jokes related to Ben & Jerry's Deadhead-themed flavor Cherry Garcia.  

“I’d like see the reality of it. I’d like to see it made manifest. This is the promise—and I feel like that’s part of the process I’m going through right now. Birthing a promise. Playing a part in making this real.”