Top: Katherine Tombaugh, artist Kwadwo Adae, Christian Community Action Executive Director Rev. Bonita Grubbs, and Kwasi Adae. Bottom: The completed mural. Lucy Gellman Photos.
At first, it looks as though the orchids are blooming straight from the brick, their lavender petals wide beside a third-story window AC unit. From one angle, they look as if they are palms, opening; from another, giant, gentle moths, spreading their pink-dusted wings. They tumble forward, a cascade of color on a deep blue background. At the center of each flower, a yellow anther sticks out, the shade of the sun.
It is a trademark of Everyone Deserves to Come Home to Flowers, a mural that now adorns the Hillside Family Shelter at the corner of Sylvan Avenue and Stevens Street. The brainchild of artist Kwadwo Adae and the housing and homelessness services nonprofit Christian Community Action (CCA), the piece marks Adae’s first work of public art in the city’s Hill neighborhood.
The shelter provides emergency housing to families in need of temporary and transitional shelter, including those facing eviction and domestic violence.
Katherine Tombaugh, Kwadwo Adae, Kwasi Adae, and Kristen Threatt.
Thursday morning, the artist joined Mayor Justin Elicker, CCA Executive Director Rev. Bonita Grubbs, and several friends, neighbors, and families from the shelter for the unveiling of the work (watch their remarks in a video below). It is funded by a $20,000 Racial Equity and Creative Healing Through The Arts (REACH) grant from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
“Lifting paintbrushes, lifting ladders and arms, turning works into action, turning bricks into paintings of light,” said Grubbs, who has led CCA since 1988. “What a gift this is, and what a light in our community.”
The work, which rises 45 feet into the air to cover three stories of the building, has been many years—and one sweltering, sweaty summer—in the making. Three years ago, CCA reached out to Adae to see if he could retouch a mural on the side of the building. That piece, which children had worked on years before, had been vandalized, and was covered in thick black aerosol paint. Adae said he couldn’t retouch it—but he could create a whole new design that would cover multiple stories.
Even as the pandemic slowed things down, he continued to seek out funding for the project (read more about that here). After securing the REACH grant last year, he and three apprentices began to work on the mural in early July.
Lyvelis Jusino and Yahaira Espinosa receive flowers from Threatt. Espinosa, who currently lives at the Hillside Family Shelter, said she has loved watching the mural go up.
For weeks, they worked through temperatures close to 100 degrees, sometimes painting in the early morning and late at night to beat the heat. Along the way, they had help, he said. Neighbors stopped by to drop off cold water and cans of ginger ale. Kids from the Hill—some who have family at the shelter, and some who live nearby—joined in to beautify the building earlier this month. They left with big smiles and latex paint on their hands, and in their hair.
When Adae realized that there would be extra space at the bottom of the mural, he added a cluster of inverted orchids, which turn their indigo-toned faces toward the sky. They weren’t meant only to take up space, he said, but to send a message that beauty and housing are both basic human rights.
“The thought was, if you are in a situation where you need to utilize a shelter service, that kind of turns your work upside down,” he said. “So whether your world is upside down or whether your word is right side up, you deserve to come home to flowers. No matter who you are, no matter what your situation is.”
Artist Dan Gries and Loyda Hernandez with 8-month-old Aayden "Pito" Baez.
Thursday, CCA staff, members of Ice The Beef, Hillside Family Shelter residents and neighbors all took in the design. At the corner of the sidewalk, Lyvelis Jusino stood with her sons Naszir, Aasiah, and Josiah Baez, beaming as they studied the finished design brick by brick. Two weeks ago, they helped Adae paint in the rising, thick summer heat, dodging dozens of bees as they filled in the bottom of the mural.
“It’s great!” Jusino said. Since a community paint day on August 5—also her birthday—she has made a point to let people know that her sons left their mark on the mural.
As she spoke, her 8-month-old Aayden took in the sheer height of the work, his eyes traveling up and down its length as CCA’s Loyda Hernandez bounced him in her arms. For six months, Hernandez has been Jusino’s family coach—a position through which Jusino said she has also become her best friend.
“The mural is awesome. It’s nice,” she said. “Just every woman, every family should come to a home where they feel safe.”
Around them, both Grubbs and Elicker praised Adae’s vision, thanking him and fellow painters Kwasi Adae, Katherine Tombaugh, and Nicole Andreson for the weeks of work that have gone into the mural. Pausing briefly as a Public Works truck rumbled by, Elicker pointed to how the work grows Adae’s public art footprint across the city, which also includes an homage to female empowerment on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail and Black chemist and educator Edward Bouchet on Henry Street.
Members of Ice The Beef.
Elicker said that the work has taken on a particular significance for him this year, as he adds flowers to his annual rotation of home-grown vegetables in his backyard garden.
“Flowers do not thrive without nurturing,” he said. “Without a home that cares for them. Without the right soil. Without the right water. Without someone that invests the time.”
CCA is that place that invests the time, he continued. In addition to the 17-unit Hillside Family Shelter, where families can stay for up to 60 days at a time, CCA runs the ARISE (Accessing Resources for Independence, Skill-Building and Employment) Center at 158 Davenport Ave., as well as its nascent New HOPE Housing Program at 660 Winchester Ave. in the city’s Newhallville neighborhood. New HOPE provides housing for 24 to 36 months.
According to the organization, CCA served a total of 1,500 families in 2021 alone. Thirty-one of those families lived in the Hillside Family Shelter, and 85 percent of them were able to find stable housing after their time at the shelter. Thursday, New HOPE supporter and state senior development specialist Lindy Lee Gold shouted out that she wants to see a mural on that center as well. Adae gave her and Grubbs a small, sure smile, as if to say, "we'll see what we can do."
Lyvelis Jusino with her sons, who helped work on the mural.
“It’s symbolic of brightness, of creativity, of its artistic expression,” Grubbs said, encouraging attendees to bring that beauty and brightness into their own neighborhoods each day. “And yes at the end of the day, we want to brighten this corner and we’re able to do that in a better way because of this mural.”
When Grubbs finished, Adae motioned to his left, and in seconds Gorilla Lemonade’s Kristen Threatt appeared with his arms full of roses. Before the opening, he worked with Adae to make sure there were flowers for every resident of the shelter who attended Thursday. After starting with women in the group, he also handed flowers to Adae and the fellow artists on the mural. Nearby, the Baez brothers nibbled on pizza that he had also provided.
The assistant director for Ice The Beef, Threatt said it was important for him to support the project because the Hill is his adopted home. While he was born in New York City, he moved to the Hill 10 years ago, and has been living on Greenwood Street since. He’s been watching the mural go up all summer, chatting with Adae about the work when he can. Thursday, he came with members of Ice The Beef, including members of a new initiative called Keeping Our Youth On Track.
“I’m just letting them [neighbors, shelter residents] know that they have family in the Hill,” he said. “That they have community behind them.”
As the crowd dispersed with flowers in hand, the vision for the mural seemed complete. When he began mapping the project years ago, Adae chose orchids specifically for how long-lasting and resilient the flowers are. Even in the depths of winter, they continue to bloom, a sign that new life is still possible.
The mural may be done, but two pieces of landscaping meant to beautify the same corner and street remain. This fall, members of Urban Resources Initiative (URI) plan to plant two Eastern Redbud trees, chosen for their heart-shaped leaves and rich coloring. In the fall, Adae said, the leaves turn a deep, golden yellow that will match parts of the mural.
“In about 10, 15 years when this mural begins to fade, we will have two large Eastern Redbud trees that are gonna tap out at about 35 to 40 feet,” he said. “So we’re panning on making sure that this is a beautiful spot for years to come.”
Learn more about Christian Community Action here. Learn more about artist Kwadwo Adae here.