CPEN Crew Lays Groundwork For New Arts Collective

Lucy Gellman | October 21st, 2022

CPEN Crew Lays Groundwork For New Arts Collective

Artspace New Haven  |  Newhallville  |  Visual Arts  |  Learning Corridor  |  CPEN  |  Open Source Festival

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Michael Peterson and Jason Friedes. Lucy Gellman Photos.

The sound of hammering filled the Newhallville Learning Corridor, steady and persistent as it echoed down Shelton Avenue. On the sidewalk, Randall Fleming, Michael Peterson and Darnell Moye crowded around Jason Friedes, watching a billboard take shape. Friedes measured the height of the metal legs as they sank into the ground. Sensing his moment, Fleming stepped in, and took over. 

Together, they are assembling the framework for AfroCenric Expressions, a five-billboard art installation that is part of Artspace New Haven’s Open Source Festival this year. A collaboration among Artspace New Haven, the Community Placemaking and Engagement Network (CPEN), Newhallville-based artist and curator ​​Arizona Taylor, and the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail Association, it is a nascent home for the newly-formed Black Artists Collective (BAC).

The BAC represents a multigenerational group of eight Connecticut-based artists working to champion the neighborhood through visual art.They include Taylor, Andre Rochester, Edmund “B*WAK” Comfort, Edward Smith, Raheem Nelson, Briana Hopes, Jessy Szkred, and Chrystophe Obiang Ze. A formal unveiling for the project is scheduled for Oct. 28 from 4 to 6 p.m.; more information and event details are available here. 

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Top: Doreen Abubakar and her sister, Loreen Lawrence. Bottom: Peterson, Friedes, and Fleming. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

"CPEN is about three things, and one of them is placemaking,” said CPEN Founder Doreen Abubakar, who also runs the Urbanscapes Plant Nursery across the street. “I started talking about building an infrastructure [for the space], and this is part of that.”

The project was born earlier this year, after Abubakar heard about the Open Source Festival (formerly known as Citywide Open Studios) through Laurel V. McLaughlin, director of curatorial affairs at Artspace. Abubakar couldn’t think of a time when the neighborhood had participated in the festival. Her last collaboration with Artspace was years ago, when students in the organization’s summer apprenticeship program installed a community bulletin board on the canal. 

But the learning corridor seemed like the perfect spot: it has hosted harvest celebrations, pandemic-proofed holiday parties and neighborhood arts events in what was once known as “The Mudhole.” When Abubakar reached out to Artspace, the organization jumped on as a partner, and pulled in multimedia artist Jason Friedes to help. Working with Friedes, Abubakar and a small group of neighborhood youth began working on five billboards that line the Farmington Canal from Shelton Avenue to Hazel Street. Each will hold art from members of the BAC. 

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Taylor, a Long Island transplant who has lived in the neighborhood for two years, has assembled a group of artists for the event on the 28th. As a mentee of Comfort’s, she said she was eager and excited to help.  

I feel great about it,” she said. “It's wonderful, especially in these types of neighborhoods where people have a lot of talent but they don't know how to go about putting their work out there.”

On a recent Wednesday, a small crew hammered posts into the ground, mounting the billboards on top of them one at a time. Friedes explained that a series of nine hollowed-out holes that dot each billboard are meant to stabilize the structures against the wind.

As he waited his turn for the hammer, Peterson praised the project for both getting him out of the house and providing a new landmark on the corridor. He said he’s excited to see what art goes up on the boards.  

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A sophomore at James Hillhouse High School, Peterson lives in the neighborhood, and knows Abubakar through work in the pollinator garden across the street. He said he’d like to see artworks addressing gun violence, as well as those celebrating the pollinator garden.

So far this year, there have been nine homicides linked primarily to gun violence and over 90 nonfatal shootings across the city. At times, the death of Michael “Mango” Judkins, a Newhallville resident who was killed in August, hung heavy over the conversation. 

“I think it’ll be good for the neighborhood,” Peterson said of the billboards. “It depends what we put on them.”

“This is just making the place look more beautiful,” Moye chimed in. “I just want to see the place get more decorated, live up to its full potential.”

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Randall Fleming and Khalif Johnson. Lucy Gellman Photos.

As they worked, the billboards slowly took shape. On the sidewalk, Friedes worked with Peterson and Moye to steady a post, measuring it every so often to make sure it was at least three feet under ground. Knee-deep in a patch of tall grass nearby, Fleming and Khalif Johnson worked to lower two seven-foot posts into the ground, using the flat side of an ax as a makeshift hammer. Every so often, Johnson stopped to step in with a leveler to see if it was standing correctly. 

Around them, Shelton Avenue set an ambient soundtrack: the growl and rumble of traffic floated over the street, punctuated by the 237 bus twice an hour. There was the whirr of bike tires every so often, as cyclists sped through the corridor. At the far end of the space, a group of young kids worked on their bikes, exploding into joyous, bright sound as they popped wheelies on the even path. 

“It’s a nice change of pace,” Johnson said as he worked. A 2020 graduate of High School in the Community (HSC), he said he’d be interested in seeing art that celebrates the neighborhood, and also urges residents to be cautious. “It keeps me busy.”

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James Connors (at right) and his son, who did not want to be named.

At a table nearby, James Connors and his son strapped on their roller skates for an afternoon ride. A new resident of the neighborhood, Connors said that he’d like to see “some more peaceful art” on the billboards, in hopes of stemming gun violence in the neighborhood. After moving to Newhallville on the first of the month, he was rattled by a shooting near his home on the eighth.

“Something genuine,” he said. “I think people, they’re really subjective to stuff they see.”  

Reached by phone Friday, Taylor said she is excited for the launch of both the project and the collective, for which she is still finishing several paintings at home. While she has loved visual art all her life, she said, she has only pursued it as a full-time career for the past two years. Prior to that time, she was a full-time home health aide and certified physician assistant, and made art in her spare time. 

A lot of people I meet, they love the work they do, but they do it for fun because they feel like they’re gonna get nowhere with their art,” she said. “People say it’s not a career move, but it actually is!”

AfroCenric Expressions - Open Source Newhallville Exhibitions opens Oct. 28 at 4 p.m. on the Newhalllville Learning Corridor. More information here.