Mural a Testament to New Bedford's Art History

Jack Spillane Column
It’s startling when you first see it.
The postmodernist mural that Sig Haines and Zach Meunier have been painting this past couple of months on a side wall of Carter’s clothing store in downtown New Bedford.
It’s startling for the sheer quality of the art and it’s startling for its juxtaposition to the 19th-century architecture of New Bedford’s national park. The work, even before it is completed, has made an aesthetic comment about the adjacent district’s 19th-century, whaling-era environment.
Instead of meditating on the sea or the counting houses, the mural tells the story of the 19th- and early 20th-century New Bedford area artists, who in their own milieu were as noteworthy as the whaling captains and textile mill owners.
Artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Albert Pinkham Ryder and William Bradford were world-renowned painters, important to the fine-art economy in the same way New Bedford ship captains and textile tycoons were important to more traditional types of commerce.
The mural — an abstract portrayal of two artist studios — when completed will have references to as many as 40 different local artists and the mediums in which they worked.
Perhaps equally impressive, the painting is entirely based on designs by the 15 or 16 youths who are part of this year’s Teen Mural Project, the ArtWorks! youth outreach program.
The 2009 program was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Crapo Foundation, the Island Foundation, Carter’s Clothing and ArtWorks! And it was also a community effort with the George Kirby Paint Co. providing the paint and local members of the painters union priming the wall for the art work.
The Carter’s mural is the seventh that has been painted across the city by the Teen Mural Project the past half-dozen or so years.
But the national park work is far and away the most ambitious effort yet, a painting that, when sealed, seems likely to become as locally important as the whaling-era park in which it exists.
The creators, in conjunction with the Whaling National Historical Park, spent a long time thinking about how to do this mural and exactly what it should be.
“Public art is very different than putting your own graffiti up on the wall,” said Irene Buck, the executive director of ArtWorks!. “It’s about talking with the community, finding out what speaks to the community.”
ArtWorks!, Buck said, is striving to give a voice to many city youth who are at a crossroads — young people who will either find a reason for buying into the system, or permanently opting out of it. Sig Haines, a UMass Dartmouth fine-art instructor — who along with Meunier, is realizing the kids’ vision (insurance issues prevented the youths from doing the painting themselves because the mural is 50 feet in the air) — said the original designs for the painting are entirely based on the young people’s work.
Meunier, the youth mentor for ArtWorks!, agreed.
“Every element that you see in this painting is based off one of their concepts,” he said. “We didn’t come up with any of it. We’re basically working directly from their painting.”
In the process of researching the mural, the youths were introduced to art history, including the Hudson River School pastorals of Bierstadt, the mystical landscapes of Pinkham Ryder, and the luminism of Bradford’s shipscapes.
Buck said that the Teen Mural Project strives to help young people find their own way in a highly regimented world.
“One of the key driving forces for ArtWorks! is that we believe young people should develop a voice,” she said.
Alisha Costa, a 16-year-old Voc-Tech sophomore who drew a picture frame used in the mural, said working on wall paintings has helped her with self-confidence.
“I’m a shy girl, so I put all my effort into my art work,” she said.
The park mural, Buck said, has introduced the kids to a side of a hometown they may have only thought was a whaling port.
“This was conceived of as a way to help the youth in this city get in touch with the rich history of art,” she said.
Well, instructing youth about New Bedford art history may have been the goal, but the reality of this mural is that it will show an entire community that their history is about a lot more than “Moby-Dick.”
Even before it’s completed, it’s that well-realized of a work.
A fundraiser for ArtWorks! will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at 384 Acushnet Ave. The mural on the Carter’s building will be dedicated at 6 p.m. Nov. 12.
Contact Jack Spillane at
October 29, 2009
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