The artist Kristopher Kotcher—also known as Frenemy—at work. Al Larriva-Latt Photos.
In the shadow of the contaminated English Station power plant and a former dumping ground at 372 Exchange St. , cartoon birds, bees, and bright flowers have appeared. There, a joyful, eye-popping mural stretches across the length of an unoccupied building. Across the street, children from John S. Martinez Magnet School can watch it go up as they play outdoors.
Since the beginning of June, the international artist Kristopher Kotcher—also known as Frenemy—has been working with Site Projects New Haven to render a scene of adventure and imagination onto its purple brick facade. On Monday, he welcomed students from Martinez School to paint with him on his ninth day of painting.
It’s part of his attempt to pay it forward, as public art has done for him.
“Everyone starts somewhere,” he told students as they joined him at the wall. “I didn't start off this good–it took me years and years and years of practice. So if you’re not that good right now, that’s fine. Just keep doing it, and you’ll get better.”
Site Projects commissioned the mural in 2021, and was able to fly the artist out this summer, just as it did artist David de la Mano in November 2020. In the interim, staff at the organization learned that Save the Sound was working on the Mill River pocket park on the second leg of the Mill River Trail. Site Projects and Save the Sound embraced the timing, pairing the projects together. Advocates of the Mill River Trail frequently hold clean up days in the area.
As the mural comes to life, it’s brought joy to students and teachers at Martinez, who in their cars roll past the work-in-progress and into the parking lot at the start of every school day. Amidst a cotton-candy pink sky and beaming yellow sunflowers, the Frenemy cartoon universe characters Mochi and Doodle Dog follow a painted arrow that leads to the soon-to-be-unveiled Mill River “pocket park.” Save the Sound and advocates of the Mill River Trail have been constructing it for at least three years.
An osprey—which in real life is nesting on top of an adjacent telephone pole—hangs over the scene. A whistling ladybug—a last-minute addition requested by the Martinez students—perches in direct line of sight of the Martinez school building. Soon, a giant frog with a book in hand will grace the backside of the mural site. The mural, along with the pocket park, is contributing to the environmental and aesthetic transformation of this small slice of Fair Haven, where Brown and Black city residents have historically been subject to socioeconomic and environmental injustice.
Left to right: Andy Twyman, Josue Machicote, Kris Kotcher.
During the first week of work, Kotcher’s friend and assistant, the artist Mike Herrera from Dallas, Tex., worked alongside him. Monday, another one of Kotcher’s friends, Andy Twyman, drove in from Boston to video record Kotcher and learn from him.
“It’s been a hard year—it’s been a hard two years,” said science and writing teacher Laura Carroll-Koch. “And every [character on the mural is] smiling. It makes me happy. It makes everyone happy. Everybody’s been saying that.”
During a half-hour workshop with Carroll-Koch’s students, the third such workshop of the day, sixth graders connected their current scientific study of the Mill River to the work and practice of public art. As they passed a bottle of green spray paint from one to another and filled in the grass outlines, it became a lesson in hard work, curiosity and kindness.
For Carroll-Koch, who is also a painter and photographer, the mural was a way to connect her love of art with her teaching. She and Kyle Bradley of the Cold Spring School have been working on a curriculum about the neighborhood watershed and the bioretention garden. That curriculum includes hands-on-trips to the Mill River, which borders the school.
Last fall, with help from educator Lisa DiFrancesco of the Regional Water Authority, Carroll-Koch and her students tested the water quality and pH of the river, an activity they’ll repeat this spring. She and her students also plan on planting native vegetation at the pocket park.
The midday sun was casting shadows on the pavement as Carroll-Koch, brimming with energy and positivity, led her dozen students across the parking lot and over to the in-progress mural.
They landed at Kotcher’s workstation, and she led the students through a recitation of the “growth mindset.”
“With hard work and dedication and practice,” they recited, filling in the gaps of her prompt, “You can do anything.”
It’s a mindset that resonates with Kotcher’s own life story, which he shared with the students. He grew up “rough and poor” in a Black and Brown neighborhood in Syracuse, New York. He called it similar to Fair Haven, gesturing to the blocks surrounding the school. His parents struggled with substance use disorder.
“I rebelled in the opposite direction,” he said.
A straightedge punk kid with pink hair, he found safety in children’s books by Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak. He got into lettering graffiti, tattoo art, and hardcore punk, touring the country with his band. He showed his work in coffee shops and asked store owners for permission to paint on their facades.
After a period in Austin, Tex., he moved abroad with his partner and has since lived in five different countries in Asia. His said his most recent accomplishment is writing and illustrating the children’s book “Kimbop Was Born to Explore.”
His success didn’t come easily, he said. He emphasized that he’s self-taught and that everything he’s achieved is due to repetition, effort, and character.
“If you work hard, and I believe if you’re kind, and do good work, good things happen to you,” he said. He repeated it throughout the workshop.
For a second his words met the students’ ears, and then they continued their incessant stream of questions. “Can you give me a tattoo?” one asked. “What is the hardest illustration you’ve ever done?” said another. “Can you paint our entire school?” said a third.
For all their excitement, when it came time to lay their hands on the mural, students were shy. Carroll-Koch encouraged Chelsea Coque toward the wall, then a sixth grader named Yari. Arms outstretched, the kids filled in the mural outlines with green spray paint, the can emitting a comforting buzz. Pretty soon all of the students had gone, except one, shorter than his classmates, who stood behind the others.
Carroll-Koch looked around and spotted him. “Benito, our hidden treasure!” she called out to a boy in a green polo shirt and basketball shoes. She coaxed him by the arm toward the wall. Benito pushed his finger down on the valve and began spraying. “Buddy, you have talent,” she enthused. “I love your energy. You’re amazing.”
Students connected their own creativity to the project. In his black durag and red Air Jordan backpack, Josue Machicote shared with Kotcher his most recent creative exploit: in March at the Boys and Girls Club on 253 Columbus Ave, he helped paint murals across a former locker room, completing its transformation into an art space. At his side was his mentor Jesse Wolf, who has been teaching him for the past four years.
During the art space’s unveiling, Machicote cut the ceremonial white ribbon. “It got me a handshake with the mayor,” he was quick to add.
Other students also related to Kotcher’s art practice. Chelsea Coque plays piano, guitar, and used to play saxophone in the Martinez school band. Her friend Scarlette Ribot, who wore calf-high striped baseball socks and a purple-accented sweatshirt, plays the bass, guitar, and piano.
“You play music, that’s also art,” Kotcher said.
When the demonstration finished, Machicote wanted to know how long Kotcher was sticking around in New Haven. He seemed disappointed to learn that the artist didn’t live in New Haven and needed to return to Malaysia after the mural’s completion. That's part of Site Projects’ mission of turning New Haven into an international arts destination: the nonprofit often commissions international artists.
Kotcher–eager to help and encourage young artists like Machicote–invited him to a public event on Saturday to continue their conversation. This weekend, he will unveil the mural as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and teach his final workshop to New Haveners of all ages and skill levels.
Although Kotcher was leaving New Haven soon, caring, supportive, and talented teachers like Carroll-Koch were staying. And so was Kotcher’s mural.
Help Kotcher add finishing touches to the mural and tour the new addition to the Mill River Trail this Saturday, June 11 at 3 p.m. as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Click here to learn more.