Trash Barrels Brighten Park's Pandemic Traditions

Lucy Gellman | April 26th, 2021

Trash Barrels Brighten Park's Pandemic Traditions

Education & Youth  |  Public art  |  Arts & Culture  |  Wooster Square  |  COVID-19  |  Riverside Academy

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Rae’gean Oakley. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Rae’gean Oakley steadied her hands on the trash barrels and carefully inspected her handiwork. On one, a cow’s flat, wet nose caught in the sunlight, gleaming pink and red. On another, a Northern Cardinal looked out into the park, waiting for a mate. A cluster of pink blossoms, milky white at the edges, surrounded it. Oakley nodded. She’d made every mark perfectly.    

Nineteen-year-old Oakley is a senior at Riverside Academy, where hybrid classes have only recently resumed after a year of remote school. Saturday, she joined Riverside fine arts teacher Michael Pavano and Historic Wooster Square Association board member Charlotte Eliscu in an effort to beautify the surrounding park. The weekend would have marked the annual Wooster Square Cherry Blossom Festival, which was a casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic for the second year in a row.

Eliscu, who lives in the neighborhood, said she and other association members still wanted to find a way to celebrate. She looped in Pavano, who she met when Town Green Special Services District partnered with students at New Light Academy for a public art installation in 2017. She talked to the Department of Parks & Public Works, which provided the barrels for free. She and association members designed a series of blossom-shaped stencils and the hashtag #CBFNH2021.

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Top: Pavano and Oakley haul the barrels into the park. Bottom: Charlotte Eliscu, who is a member of the Historic Wooster Square Association. 

“I wanted to still find a way to beautify our public space,” Eliscu said as yoga students slid from down dog into cobra pose on the far side of the park. On a large stump nearby, her mom dispensed cups of coffee and donuts at a social distance. “We want people to enjoy the park, and enjoy it safely.”

While Oakley came alone on Saturday, between 15 and 20 students from Riverside contributed to the project. Working in teams after the school reopened this month, they carefully selected a mix of scenes from nature, including close-up images of cows and dogs, some canoodling blue-winged warblers, and trees bursting with red and pink blossoms.

They also picked inspirational quotations, including Anthony Douglas’ “Kindness is not an act. It is a lifestyle.” and “Wherever life plants you, bloom with grace.” All of the painting took place in Pavano’s classroom, where he teaches with a steady mix of cello and piano concerti in the background. He said that students decided on both the images and the quotes.   

Oakley is one of the students for whom that open-ended approach works. For as long as she can remember, she’s loved learning. The past year, however, “has been a struggle with Covid,” she said. When she’s in remote classes, she doesn’t feel the same push to engage with the material—or with her teachers and classmates. When the Board of Education announced that schools would be reopening, she didn’t hesitate in making her decision.

She said she’s glad to be back, and doubly glad to be back in Pavano’s classroom. She referred to him exclusively as “Mr. P” throughout the interview.

“Art is calming for me,” she said. “When I’m doing this, it’s what makes me happy. Art is supposed to be expressive. It’s what I want it to be, not what it’s supposed to be.”

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She said that in the past, she’s bumped heads with art teachers who have an idea of what they want students to work on. Pavano lets her move at her own speed. As she talked through her future plans—Oakley hopes to one day run a hospital, and is currently working towards becoming a certified nursing assistant (CNA)—she walked briskly over from the bins to a pile of blossom-shaped stencils and pink spray paint, and got to work. She beamed as a wet pink flower appeared at her feet.

“I feel like art just gives me a voice,” she said before adding another blossom to the pavement. Across from her, almost-18-month-old Hunter Ian Cupo Dunn shook a paint can gently up and down. His mom, Wooster Square Alder Ellen Cupo, made sure to lay down a few blossoms before she headed out to another meeting. Oakley smiled at the fact that she and Hunter had matching Crocs. 

Around them, the park filled up with walkers, eager market-goers, and friends meeting outdoors. A few families stopped to snap pictures of the blossom-studded walkway and surrounding trees. Others asked gently if and when the Cherry Blossom Festival would return. One woman asked Eliscu where to find the public art installation she’s read about on social media.

“You’re looking at it,” Eliscu said.

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Wooster Square Alder Ellen Cupo and her son,  Hunter Ian Cupo Dunn.

Pavano said he was excited to see the students get some recognition for their work. After starting his career in law enforcement several years ago, he realized that “if you really want to make change, it is through education” and not through the current system of policing. He spent his first years in New Haven at New Light High School, where he also worked as the school’s coordinator for the violence prevention program YouthStat. He moved to Riverside Academy in 2018, after the Board of Education shuttered New Light and two other city high schools.

It was the same year that the city named him the Teacher of the Year. He said that the pandemic has shown him that hybrid learning works for some students, who log into classes from their jobs or make up assignments on their own time. Oakley, for instance, didn't always show up to remote class, but she always got her assignments in. He added that many of them were excited to get involved in the project.

“It’s just an opportunity for our students to be part of the larger community,” he said. “Sometimes our students don’t know each other at the beginning of a project like this. The goal was to show them that they’re a part of the bigger world.”


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