New Mural Brings A Piece Of Ethiopia To Newhallville

Lucy Gellman | September 16th, 2020

New Mural Brings A Piece Of Ethiopia To Newhallville

Public art  |  Arts & Culture  |  Newhallville  |  COVID-19


MuralKingDavid - 6
Justin Farmer. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Justin Farmer made a clean stroke of white paint on a door frame, then stepped back to look at his handiwork. The white glinted against bands of yellow and turquoise. To his right, a lion stared out from the high grass, its eyes a soft shock of green.

Farmer is one of over 60 New Haveners and Hamdenites who have stopped to work on a new 28-foot mural at the King David House of Essence, located just before the New Haven-Hamden border on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. The project is spearheaded by artist JoAnn Moran with funding from the New Haven Innovation Collaborative, Farmington Canal Rail-To-Trail Association, and New Haven Friends of the Farmington Canal Greenway.

It celebrates Ethiopian and Jamaican art, politics and culture as an homage to King David owners Delroy May and Sylvia Stephens. The two, who are originally from Jamaica, have operated the store on Dixwell Avenue since 2005 and have lived in New Haven’s West River neighborhood since the 1980s. In a phone call Sunday night, May said he is pleased with the work's progress, which he checks in on every few days. 

MuralKingDavid - 2

“Although it appears [to be] a simple mural, I put a lot of thought and research into it and there was so much left to learn,” wrote Moran in a message after Saturday’s painting session. “Woven into the design are depictions, ritual images and patterns from ancient African, Judeo-Christian, and Rastafarian philosophy. ”

Saturday, she broke down the symbolism for anyone who came by. On the right of the wall, a sweet-eyed lion represents Emperor Haile Selassie I, who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. Selassie was born Ras Tafari Makonnen. His name, rule, and drive toward modernization—as well as the fact that the country was never colonized—birthed core principles of Rastafarianism. Well before his first visit to Jamaica in 1966, the position earned him the name “The Lion of Judah,” a figure that was also represented on the country’s flag through 1974.  It's also a reference to the store—Selassie was thought to be descended from the same line as King David. 

Around the lion, the mural springs to life. Two women, regal and rendered in profile, look as if they have been quilted and then flattened by the artist Faith Ringgold, from whom Moran drew inspiration. Streams of pink and yellow flow across the wall, nearly golden and punctuated with full orbs, flecks, and tidy dots of color. An eagle, spreading its wings wide, represents the promise of America, often not kept to its immigrants and most vulnerable citizens.

Moran said she thought—and still thinks—about what it means to be a white woman working on the piece. Her own background is Irish and Italian, and does not include a history of forced migration and labor, enslavement, and years of normalized oppression. Saturday, she said that she sees the work as part of the community art-making process—that learning about the history, doing one's homework, and making sure the neighborhood gets to play a role is all par for the course. 

Jaylen Edge and Willow Moore. JoAnn Moran Photo.

As Moran painted quietly Saturday, cyclists would slow down, hit the kickstand, and stop to ask about the work or add a few strokes of paint before they got back on the trail. Her only reliable company was Giancarlo Lomanto, a recent Sound School grad who painted quietly for hours. Other people rolled in in waves, some on wheels and others on foot. 

While walking her puppy with a group of pint-sized artists, Precious Keeton turned a sunny afternoon into a chance to get creative. From the group, Jaylen Edge and Willow Moore birthed a tiny green dragon that was hatching from its shell.

“I love to see the different artwork,” Keeton said. “We do paintings or creative ideas for the kids all the time ,so they were so excited to be able to paint the mural. We look forward to seeing more artwork along the trail.”

"I loved how she let me be so creative! I painted a egg with a dragon on my own! " added Jaylen in a follow-up email.

Eager to pick up a brush, Farmer biked to the site just after 4 p.m., as Moran turned her attention to the eagle on the left side of the mural. Its huge, flapping white wing had purple C-shaped bones weaving through the feathers. She studied a cluster of dark holes in the concrete block, where multiple coats of paint had disappeared.

“It’s like painting on English muffins,” she joked.

MuralKingDavid - 7

Farmer hopped off his bike and grabbed a cup of white paint. In the past two years, he’s worked on both the Women’s Empowerment Mural by artist Kwadwo Adae and Moran’s appeal to Bike The Vote. Both were completed and unveiled in fall 2018. He joked that he wouldn’t feel right if he missed out on painting a third that sat squarely between the two, like a tiebreaker in a dazzling game of tug-of-war.

As he painted, he praised the project as bringing the community together and giving artists a chance to do work when the world is still largely shut down around them. Farmer grew up near the mural site, where Newhalville meets the edge of Hamden. All four of his siblings are artists, from painters to ceramicists. As a representative of Hamden’s nearby fifth district on the Town Council, he has met constituents, listened to concerns, and made friends through local public art projects.

MuralKingDavid - 4

“For me, there’s always a conversation about taking pride in one’s community,” he said, joking that he was also drawn to the lion because he is a July baby, making him a Leo. “You could think, well, I’m just sitting here painting. But if you think about it, a lot of these projects are spaced out in a meaningful way. One is literally across the street from where Lee'Andre Cousins-Benton was killed.”

He added that he thinks public art gives residents—and cyclists and pedestrians who are passing through—a chance to cultivate a deeper sense of place where they live. He’s watched as after-school activities in Newhallville dry up and financial resources go to other, often whiter neighborhoods. He’s listened to Yale University warn its students that Newhallville is an unsafe neighborhood, a word that often doubles as a euphemism for Black.

“So, so many people make the argument that this community is ‘dangerous’ and so on and so forth,” he said. “But public arts make it beautiful and engage people. Suddenly, people aren’t just zooming through. They’re stopping to look at the place around them.”

“We also have to find ways that the creative community is able to focus on their practice,” he added. “Or their work is going to die.”

MuralKingDavid - 5

Moran expects to hold an unveiling celebration on Oct. 11, beside the Bike The Vote mural to allow for ample social distancing. Recently, a graffiti artist has been adding cartoon characters one by one to the mural, as if they too are headed to the polls. Moran said that any celebration will come with a voter registration table and election-focused material.

Aaron Goode, a member of the Rail-to-Trail Association who helped secure the funding, said that the mural is part of his hope that the trail can become a sort of multimedia “arts corridor” with murals, light installations, and interactive sculpture in the next few years. He pointed to a number of works that have appeared since 2016, including Adae’s well-loved runners at the canal’s Starr Street crossing. On Saturday, a new mural celebrating the Black Lives Matter movement, also by Adae, is coming to Bassett Street. 

“I think that's been my long term vision ever since phase three was done in New Haven nine or 10 years ago,” Goode said. “Whenever I go down to the High Line in New York, that's kind of the vision. You have people having a multi-sensory experience. They're outside and getting recreation, but there’s also this cultural and aesthetic experience on top of recreation and commuting.”

“I would add that it's been really great being out there and having dozens of people from the neighborhood, Yale, and Newhallville painting together,” he said. “They’ve said to me, ‘this feels like a normal activity.’ It's a little bit of that pre-pandemic normally, bringing a little bit of joy into people’s days.”