Sunflowers Sprout Over Grand Avenue

Lucy Gellman | November 9th, 2022

Sunflowers Sprout Over Grand Avenue

Culture & Community  |  Fair Haven  |  Public art  |  Arts & Culture  |  Visual Arts  |  Arts & Anti-racism

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Top: Julie Colon, head teacher at Centro San Jose, with four-year-old Ashley Cervantes. Bottom: Bijan Notghi, deputy director of traffic operations for the city's department of Traffic, Transportation and Parking. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Four-year-old Ashley Cervantes squealed as she picked up a paintbrush and lifted off from the sidewalk in Julie Colon’s arms. Leaning in, she dabbed paint into the wall, filling in the wings of a candy-red butterfly. To her right, a sunflower extended its bright petals out toward Ferry Street in one direction, and Blatchley Avenue in the other. The sounds of morning traffic rattled by.  

“Hermoso!” she cried as Colon placed her back onto the sidewalk. Above her head, the words We Rise by Lifting Others rose toward the sky.  

Friday morning, Ashley and her classmates were just a few of the helping hands outside Centro San Jose, where artist Madelyn LaRose is putting the final touches on a new mural at the child development center at 290 Grand Ave. Years after a mural disappeared at the site, she and Centro’s students are breathing new life into the building—and the corridor on which it sits. Across the street, it has a public art pendant in a new poster from graphic designer Daniel Pizarro, one of several that have recently arrived in Fair Haven.

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The mural has received support from the local McDonald’s location at 308 Ferry St. and the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association (CSNA), and is part of an effort from the nascent Grand Avenue Working Group to revitalize the area. The posters from Pizarro, of which there are four in Fair Haven, are also in partnership with Junta for Progressive Action.   

“This is a wall that has stood out for a long time,” said Fair Haven Alder Sarah Miller, who lives just half a mile away on Clinton Avenue. “It used to be a mural, then it was painted over, and it just has come up over and over again as a place that we could easily refresh. It’s always nice to be able to do something really concrete that you see every day.”

The mural began to take shape earlier this year, after Miller met LaRose on a different public art project. In July, the artist began working with Carlos Perez on a NuSpiral-sponsored underpass mural at Grand Avenue and Hamilton Street, right on the cusp of Fair Haven. As the two connected, Miller learned that LaRose was both an artist and a lifelong Fair Havener, born and raised on Blatchley Avenue. At 24, she now lives on Lombard Street.  

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LaRose last Friday, with kids and teachers from Centro San Jose.

Miller loved that LaRose was from Fair Haven—the neighborhood that has become her adopted home, and the place where she and her husband are raising their two sons. In return, LaRose loved the idea of giving back to the place that raised her. After Centro gave its blessing, the two began trading ideas around “a design that reminds me of the community,” LaRose said. She came up with a trio of hands, palms cupped toward the sky, surrounded by bright sunflowers, tall grasses, blooming ferns and butterflies. 

In planning, she said, it was important to her to celebrate both Centro’s mission and the neighborhood’s diversity. Toward the bottom of the mural, tiny handprints make up several multicolored flower petals, a reminder of the neighborhood’s littlest artists and their future in its schools, homes, businesses and houses of worship. Far above it, the phrase We Rise by Lifting Others comes from the nineteenth-century orator and abolitionist Robert Ingersoll. LaRose has also written it in Spanish.      

As LaRose worked on the design, it fit into a wider vision for main street development that a new Grand Avenue Working Group has proposed for the area. Since March, a group of small business owners, city officials, and local nonprofit professionals have been meeting with each other to discuss ways to beautify the area. Public art was a natural choice, Miller said: the overhead is relatively low, and the process is simple. There’s not a lot of municipal red tape. 

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Teacher Julie Colon with four-year-old student Yaniera Campos.

Centro, which was founded as a child development center in 1948, was an eager partner. So were members of the city’s Economic Development Administration, which has allocated a small portion of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding especially for Grand Avenue. Miller said that businesses along Grand Avenue have also been especially receptive, with high praise for Durango Insurance’s Eric Gonzales. Gonzales has worked to organize merchants along the corridor. 

All of that led to sunflowers springing over the avenue this fall, before the cold weather moved in. Last Friday, LaRose found herself in a giggling, chirping thicket of small children, each waiting for their turn to paint. With Colon and Centro Administrative Assistant Jenniffer Chona, they fanned out across the wall, filling in bright red butterflies and neon-green leaves with deep veins. Before they finished, they lined up for a final assignment, holding out their small palms, fingers spread. 

One by one, Chona, LaRose and Colon covered their hands with paint, pressing them gently to the wall. In a small alcove with double doors, students pushed their palms a second time into the wings of a giant butterfly, leaving their mark for years.  

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Centro San Jose students Ashley Cervantes, Yaniera Campos, and Jose Medina. All of them are four years old. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

“Working with these kids is awesome,” LaRose said after they had headed back inside, and she could get back on a ladder to work. “It’s a lot of fun to know that they’ll walk by it and be like, ‘Oh, I did that!’ It feels good.”  

They’re not the only ones who will benefit from the mural. Friday, the 212 bus rolled reliably by, stopping just across from the building as passengers got on and off. Without fail, passers-by stopped on the sidewalk to ask LaRose the story behind the design. Miller motioned directly across the street, where first-floor classrooms at the Family Academy of Multilingual Exploration (FAME) look out onto Grand Avenue. Both her kids go there—as do hundreds of other students. 

“You want the kids to look out of their classroom windows and see something beautiful,” she said. As if on cue, she headed toward Blatchley Avenue, where a second public art project was about to go in.  

“We’re Not A Monolith” 

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Artist Daniel Pizarro. Behind him is city Deputy Economic Development Director Carlos Eyzaguirre. 

 Across the street, Pizarro stood at the ready, waiting as city staff opened up an old bike share display in front of the school and prepared it for posters in Spanish and English. Since August, he has drawn inspiration from over 40 works of art by FAME students, which Miller sent his way as he was working on the design. Friday, dozens of them spilled out of the school’s Blatchley Avenue doors and surrounded him, their chatter filling the air. 

“Y’all are amazing artists,” he said, adding that they are also far more advanced than he was at the same age. “What I saw in your guys’ artwork—correct me if I’m wrong—but y’all are proud to be part of Fair Haven, right?”

A few nods turned into audible murmurs of “yes” and “mmmhmm” around him. Pizarro, who has lived in New Haven for close to a decade, asked students to shout out the histories they brought to Fair Haven, listening as they honored roots that criss-crossed Puerto Rico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico. To that, he added his own in Chile, by way of Los Angeles. 

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Sarah Miller, who serves as one of Fair Haven's alders, is standing to the left in the purple coat.

As he and students watched the installation, Pizarro said that the poster, now one of several in a campaign, has been months in the making. In August, Miller and downtown Alder Alex Guzhnay approached him with the idea of a visual campaign that would make Grand Avenue more welcoming. Miller gave him dozens of source texts to work with: designs from FAME sixth grade students that she had digitized. It dovetailed with volunteer work he was doing for Junta for Progressive Action, where his wife Bruni is executive director.

“How do we create a cultural brand for Fair Haven?” he said. “What does it look like? I really wanted to capture Latinidad … We’re not a monolith.”     

Poring over those images—by which he was both delighted and impressed, he said Friday—he worked to isolate culturally specific elements, from flags of different Latin American countries to the butterfly as a symbol of resistance. As he worked, he realized that he could cover the project with an “Artists Respond” grant that he had received from the Connecticut Office of the Arts. He shared several of the designs last month, at Junta’s ¡Fiesta Latina! celebration on Grand Avenue. In addition, the posters now sit in front of FAME, Grand Avenue and James Street, Grand Avenue and East Pearl Street, and Ferry and Lombard Streets. 

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Friday, he broke down the symbolism in the Blatchley Avenue poster (see other designs, which read “Welcome To Fair Haven” and “Fair Haven Welcomes The World,” here and here), which reads “Celebrating Our Cultures.”

In the finished work, a flat, squat drum and pair of maracas celebrate the centuries-old tradition of bomba and Afro-Caribbean diaspora. Beneath them, three panels show San Juan’s famous “El Morro,” a wide-winged, explosively colorful butterfly and palm tree beneath a circular sun. The angular shapes and blocks of bright color that cut through it are his signature. 

He also thought about the importance of bilingual communication, he said—often overlooked by his colleagues in the field of graphic design. Each of the posters are printed in English and Spanish, to increase accessibility.    

“I was thinking about all the diverse cultures and identities in Fair Haven,” he said. “As an artist, I’m paying homage to all the things that make up Latinidad and having folks feel like they see themselves in the work.”  

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Back across the street, Madelyn (Maddie) LaRose continued working.

As he watched city staffers Bijan Notghi and Carlos Eyzaguirre install a poster in front of his school, FAME seventh grader Natanael Crespo said he was excited to see the project take shape in front of his school. On one side, the work proudly read “Celebrating Our Cultures” in clear, thick black lettering. On the other side of the display, a mirror image with the words “Celebremos Nuestra Culturas” faced out toward Grand Avenue. 

“I’m glad people are sharing cultures,” he said.  As part of a Puerto Rican family living in Fair Haven, he’s proud of his neighborhood—and wants other people to be, too. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen something like this.”    

“It feels good to see this,” chimed in his friend, fellow seventh grader Yeshua Estrada. 

Downtown Alder Alex Guzhnay, who grew up in the neighborhood, said that he believes small changes like the mural and poster campaign will go a long way in revitalizing the corridor, and bringing more people into Fair Haven. Friday, he remembered walking up and down Grand Avenue for bread, pastries, and food with members of his family. Over the summer, he worked closely with the Grand Avenue Special Services District.  

“We can take advantage of underutilized spaces with a lot of things like this,” he said.