11-year-old Elijah Christian Martin and Jaylin Greene. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Elijah Christian Martin dipped his brush into a can of rose-pink paint and scoped out a patch of red and brown brick in front of him. Far above his head, a lavender orchid spread its petals out to touch the summer sun. Its curled stem hung down as if to say hello. Back on the ground, Friday afternoon traffic whirred by on Sylvan Avenue. He lifted the brush, and began to leave his mark.
Friday, a handful of pint-sized painters braved the sizzling, sweaty August afternoon to help artist Kwadwo Adae complete his first-ever mural in the city’s Hill neighborhood, a 45-foot high rendering of orchids on the Hillside Family Shelter at 124 Sylvan Ave. A collaboration with Christian Community Action (CCA), the work bloomed out of Adae’s own belief that “everyone deserves to come home to flowers.” He chose orchids for their longevity.
The building, which sits at the corner of Sylvan Avenue and Stevens Street, provides temporary housing to families seeking support, including those fleeing domestic violence. As a public artist, Adae said it was important to him to involve youth in the community, which has become a consistent part of his practice. The mural is funded by a $20,000 Racial Equity and Creative Healing (REACH) grant from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
Top: Artist Kwadwo Adae with Jaylin Greene and Josiah Baez. Bottom: 11-year-old Elijah Christian Martin, Jaylin Greene, Kwasi Adae (in jeans), Josiah Baez and his mom Lyvelis Jusino. Lucy Gellman Photos.
“I love doing this,” Adae said Friday, fielding questions from young painters and checking to make sure no one had overheated. “I love that a kid, as they grow up, they can always be like, 'That mural right there, I touched that part. I did the bottom corner. I did this color.' That's a sense of pride for them, and a sense of ownership for them, and it's a way to share the act of painting with other generations."
“This has been a beautiful thing,” chimed in Sean Campbell, CCA’s director of Programs. “We were excited to have him [Adae] be able to provide us with this opportunity … having him come out with his talented team to do this amazing artwork is just a blessing. I love it. Seeing the kids getting involved and being part of this completion is just a beautiful thing to see.”
The project has been at least three years in the making. In 2019, CCA reached out to Adae about doing some restoration work on a small, older mural that decorated the side of the building, but had been vandalized by graffiti writers using black aerosol paint. Adae told the organization that he couldn’t fix it—but he could do a mural project that covered the entire wall. They were still in the middle of discussions when Covid-19 hit the city in March 2020.
Adae never lost interest in the project—or the neighborhood, where the shelter sits just down the street from Casa Otoñal and Casa Familia. While he has completed several murals in New Haven’s Newhallville and Dixwell neighborhoods and few in the city's schools, he hadn’t yet done work in the Hill. When the Community Foundation announced the REACH grant in 2021, the timing seemed right.
Top: Curbrer Martin, Elijah Christian Martin, Josiah and Naszir Baez. Bottom: Adae earlier Friday afternoon on a scissor lift. Lucy Gellman Photos.
This summer, he said, the project has taken longer than expected because of extreme, sometimes unrelenting heat that makes it unsafe to work outdoors, particularly on a scissor lift suspended 45 feet above the sloping sidewalk. And yet, he said, he’s also felt the support from the community: people often leave cold bottles of water and ginger ale at the base of the scissor lift to make sure he’s hydrating. He’s met most of the kids from the surrounding blocks. He praised his assistants Kwasi Adae, Nicole Andreson and Katherine Tombaugh for working with him to complete the mural by the end of the summer.
Friday, kids fanned out across the wall, split evenly among pink and gray sections of paint as they worked on the base of the design. At the corner closest to Sylvan Avenue, 11-year-old Elijah carefully applied pink paint to the brick, until it seemed that the wall itself was blushing. A rising sixth grader at Elm City College Prep Middle School, he said that the act of painting “makes me feel happy, because I can paint what I like.”
Every few moments, he paused to take in the sheer size of the piece, with huge, climbing flowers floating in space. Above him, the orchids’ yellow anthers lolled like long tongues in the heat. He turned back to a section of wall and carefully added more pink. At the corner, his sister Curbrer Martin quietly watched him work.
A 2012 graduate of Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, Martin said she was grateful to see the mural brightening up the neighborhood. For her, the act of painting is a form of emotional release—something that she hoped the young kids there could also experience.
Top: Lyvelis Jusino with her son, Aasiah Jusino-Baez, who she fondly refers to as Junie. Bottom: Logan Parker. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Just a few feet away, Lyvelis Jusino rolled in with her sons, Josiah, Naszir, and Aasiah “Junie” Baez and her nephews, Jaylin Greene and Logan Parker. As the five boys carefully staked out their spots, debated the merits of gray and pink, and picked out brushes, Justino took it all in. Every so often, a giggle escaped from the wall, where the boys watched for bees as they carefully covered their brushes and began to paint.
A transplant from Tampa, Florida, Jusino came to New Haven “big-belly pregnant” last November, after losing her husband unexpectedly and facing a subsequent eviction from her home. At the time, she was trying to make it through a high-risk pregnancy that had put her on bed rest, and had fallen behind on rent because she could not physically report to work. She and her boys moved to New Haven, where her in-laws live, in search of support.
They connected her with 2-1-1, which put her in touch with Christian Community Action. At a moment when the world seemed completely upside down, she said, CCA was there to assist with temporary housing, SNAP benefits and Husky healthcare coverage. Seven months ago, she delivered a healthy baby boy named Aaidyn in her new home state.
Top: Lyvelis Jusino with her youngest son, 7-month-old Aaidyn Baez. Bottom: 7-year-old Josiah Baez shows off his hands at the end of the community paint day. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Friday marked another milestone: it was the first time she had celebrated a birthday with both her immediate family and chosen “mommy tribe” in New Haven. She said she was glad to spend it contributing to something beautiful just yards away from where her kids pick up the bus.
“I don’t know if mommies are allowed to help, but—” she said playfully, crouching down and picking up a brush coated in pink paint. She began to fill in an open stretch in long, neat strokes, a nod to a former career painting houses in Florida. “I love painting. This is therapy for me.”
Close by, her 7-year-old son Josiah called the day a success, despite the heat. While his favorite subjects at Hill Central School are math and science, he’ll be adding art to that lineup in time for the coming school year. As he chatted, a long-bristled brush coated in pink paint hovered in his right hand.
An hour or so in, graphic designer Orane Fraser jogged over with his camera to document the afternoon’s progress. A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, Fraser has been watching the mural go up all summer, and documents its progress whenever he gets a free moment. Friday, he was excited to see it nearing completion.
Top: Artist Kwadwo Adae with Orane Fraser, a graphic designer and lifelong resident of the Hill. Bottom: Filmmaker Travis Carbonella, CT Public Reporter Ryan Caron King, and Adae. Adae said he chose orchids for their longevity. Lucy Gellman Photos.
“It brings a lot of light, good vibes and good energy to the community,” he said. “There’s a few struggles here, but I love my neighborhood, I love where I’m from. It’s low key a big old family.”
Just around the corner on Sylvan Avenue, a car door opened and just as quickly clicked shut with a crisp thump. Rev. Bonita Grubbs, who has run Christian Community Action since 1988, walked over to take in the design. Pointing out how alive it seemed—like an elephant, she said, or maybe an octopus—she declared the project “artistically fantabulous.”
“This is worth the wait,” she said. “More that worth the wait. It brings joy. It’s a bright and colorful manifestation of community spirit and artistry and creativity. And the fact that Kwadwo has made such progress and that there are kids who are painting—they get to add their particular gift to this effort. It’s a community event. And that’s the best that one could say about it.”
“This is exciting,” she added. “This is a positive community event, and my hope is that people will walk by it and be inspired.”
Artist Kwadwo Adae and Rev. Bonita Grubbs, who has led Christian Community Action since 1988.