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On Washington Avenue, Hill Murals Spring To Life

Lucy Gellman | June 25th, 2021

On Washington Avenue, Hill Murals Spring To Life

Public art  |  Arts & Culture  |  The Hill  |  Visual Arts  |  Arts & Anti-racism

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Top: Artists Isaac Bloodworth and Kyle Kearson. Bottom: A detail of Joy Da Black Boy on one side of the laundromat.  

The little boy floats in a wash of sunrise pink, an astronaut's helmet fitted snugly over his curls. A teal spacesuit keeps him warm; a tiny spiral adds a dimple to his chin. He smiles and places one hand over his belly, at ease in this universe. A yellow manual titled How To Rest is suspended in midair beside him. Joy da Black Boi has found a home on Washington Avenue. 

Artists, community organizers, and neighborhood residents celebrated that work during a Juneteenth unveiling of two new murals at the Five Star Laundromat Center in the city's Hill neighborhood. The murals are a collaboration among artists Isaac Blodworth and Kyle Kearson, the Wilson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, and Hartford-based organization CT Murals. They include a new poem from writer and Black Lives Matter New Haven Co-Founder Sun Queen.  

One side of the laundromat features a portrait of Coretta Scott King and a stanza of “Coretta,” a new work that Queen wrote specifically for the occasion. The other shows multiple iterations of Joy da Black Boi, one of Bloodworth’s longtime characters, chasing his dreams in space. Read more about both of those in a previous article on the murals

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Hill Alder Kampton Singh, artist Kyle Kearson, and nurse-midwife Piyar Delerme at the mural. 

“It feels amazing to be here,” said Kearson, a sculptor who grew up in New Haven and now works with Bloodworth at the Yale Center for British Art. “Somebody used the word ‘brilliant,’ and I really feel that as I reflect on the process. I’ve never done this before, so to capture the likeness of an amazing woman, to portray her, is meaningful.” 

As the sun made both murals vibrate with bright color, speakers welcomed the work to the neighborhood. While he grew up attending New Haven schools, Kearson said that he never learned about “the real accolades of people of color” in New Haven and across the country until he started educating himself. He called it an honor to memorialize King’s legacy.

“Black women are solid,” he said, standing beside his fiancée. “Consistent. Strong. A force to be reckoned with.” HillFiveStarMuralsUnveiling - 8

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Pamela Monk Kelley, co-chair of the Hill North Community Management Team, grew up in the neighborhood.

Pamela Monk Kelley, co-chair of the Hill North Community Management Team, remembered growing up in the neighborhood when the area was still known as “six corners,” for the six corners that converged at the intersection of Columbus Avenue. 

Raised on Cedar Street, she and her siblings used to ride their bikes through the neighborhood, visit with tight-knit friends and family who lived nearby, and take art and dance classes at a nearby teen center where Roberto Clemente Elementary School now stands. All of that is gone now, she said—but the neighborhood’s resilience remains. She feels a powerful tie to the Hill, to which the Monk family first moved in the 1950s. 

"I was born in the Hill, raised in the Hill, went to school in the Hill, worship God in the Hill, work in the Hill,” she said. “We remember a lot about this corner.”

Monk Kelley added that she sees public art as an antidote to New Haven’s spike in gun violence, including the 15 homicides that the city has seen this year. Of those, the most recent took place blocks from the murals on Columbus Avenue just three days before the unveiling. Next month, when the family does its annual parade through the neighborhood, she’s excited for the murals to greet Monk family members as they march down Washington Avenue. 

"There is a scripture in the Bible: 'I lift up my eyes to the hills,'" she said. "We, the people of New Haven, must continue to envision a new Hill and fight for the greater good to protect the innocent from harm and strive for a better world."     

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"What's freedom without her story?"

Queen, whose organizing has taken her from the streets to the symphony and back again, called the murals a chance to work against the erasure of Black women from history. She reminded attendees that King not only stood beside and supported her husband, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, but also helped shape his vision for white accountability and Black liberation

She lifted the mic close to her mouth, her face perfectly framed by blue and yellow flowers in the background. Her words boomed over the crowd. 

The Black woman is often erased, she read
How do we comprehend history without her story? Her/story
What's freedon't without she? What's freedom without her  
What's freedom without her story?HillFiveStarMuralsUnveiling - 10

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Top: One of the murals, including a stanza of Queen's new work "Coretta." Bottom: Hill Alder Ron Hurt: "The Hill is on the rise."

Others pointed to the murals as a model for public art in the neighborhood. Howard Boyd, chair of the Hill North Community Management Team, noted that “there are plenty of walls” waiting for artists, many of whom may live and work right in the Hill. 

Hill Alder Ron Hurt praised the murals, noting that Five Star Laundromat is “my laundromat,” where he took his clothes when he moved to the Hill 18 years ago. He urged attendees to organize and care for each other not only in the spirit of Juneteenth, but for the same vision of Black liberation captured on both sides of the mural. 

"Being as hard as it is in our community, there's a lot of love," he said. "There's a lot of respect. We've been dealt our moments of tragedy. But for some reason, we pull it together. And this is a sign of us pulling it together."  

"People, let's continue to love," he said. "Let's continue to shine. The Hill is on the rise."

The murals are located on both sides of Five Star Laundromat Center at 305 Washington Ave.