Reaching the community through art

Mount Holyoke renews community ties with a post-pandemic return to public art.

A bright yellow sun radiates its light across a gently flowing river as a great blue heron glides past on silent wings. Two large fish leap from the waters as others swim just below the surface. Nearby, large wild mushrooms cluster on the bank, a ladybug perched on one and an earthworm below another. Brightly colored flowers, ferns and wild grasses stretch into the distance. In the foreground a gnarly tree with deep roots shelters a family of rabbits in its dark hollow while a family of squirrels frolics on the branches above. 

These are scenes from the mural that is the culmination of Mount Holyoke College visiting lecturer Pasqualina Azzarello’s Public Art course. Over the semester 16 students engaged in visioning, designing, refining and ultimately painting the six-panel local ecology–themed piece with Azzarello. It will be installed this spring at Buttery Brook Park in collaboration with the town of South Hadley and its Parks and Recreation Department. 

Top panel: the artists stand with their work. Below: The final mural.
Top panel: the artists stand with their work. Below: The final mural.

Reflecting with the students in her class on the unveiling of the project, Azzarello said there was a sense of meaning and revelation of something that is more than the sum of its parts. 

“It is absolutely the result of a collective process,” she said. “When we think back to when we first got started on this project, none of us ever would have imagined this.” 

A community celebration will take place during the first week of June to showcase the public mural project to the public at Buttery Brook Park, she said. She hopes the mural, which will adorn the wall of a building nearby the playground, will inspire “a sense of wonder and curiosity” for children visiting the park. 

Public art as community building

The mural is one piece of a larger vision of the studio art department at Mount Holyoke College, which focuses on creating art to share as a means of connecting with the public. 

Azzarello, who has been with the College since 2018, has rounded out that effort with her unique experience as a public muralist whose work spans the globe from Central and South America to the Southwest United States and New York City. 

Ligia Bouton, associate professor of art and chair of the art studio department, said the ability of artists to share their work with the public is both a relief and renewal after the COVID-19 pandemic made community engagement difficult. Azzarello’s experience with working with the public facilitated the return.

“Students really lost or missed out on what we think of as an important part of our curriculum, which is the public presentation of work,” Bouton said. “[Azzarello’s] dedication to working with local organizations has meant that the town of South Hadley has really embraced the whole project from start to finish.”

Art in 4D: documenting the process through time

A key piece of the mural is not just the product but also the process. As the project unfolded, the class preserved and documented the steps along the way. It’s a way of conceiving of art through the dimension of time, as well as space, explained Bouton.

“It actually gives students the opportunity to share and think about the whole arc of making from the very beginning to the very end,” she said. 

The South Hadley Public Library will display the preparatory drawings, sketches and paintings for the public mural project at Buttery Brook Park in an exhibition titled “Off the Beaten Path.”

Meanwhile the Available Potential Enterprises gallery in Northampton hosted a public showing of 10 solo capstone exhibitions for Advanced Studio Art students called “This Is My Letter to the World” in April. 

Bringing it home

For Azzarello, the process of creating public art is “valuable across all disciplines.” The public mural project taught students firsthand how to create a collaborative public art piece while also developing community relationships, she explained.

“There are many skills and lessons that are explored within the platform of public art. … I think that these skills are all things that are incredibly valuable for students because they’re learning to establish community partners and maintain and cultivate those partnerships. Those are skills that are transferable in many careers after they graduate.” 

Olivia Brandwein, a senior art studio major from Brooklyn, New York, said that creating a collaborative mural project with 16 artists was challenging but ultimately a rewarding experience. 

“It was very hands-on and collaborative from start to finish in a way that I haven’t done, even in works where I’m working in groups,” she said. 

For Kate Greenblatt, a sophomore studio art major, the collaboration with the town of South Hadley changed her perspective on creating art, which up until then had been mostly a solitary endeavor. 

“The community is the primary influencer for what we’re doing,” she said. “We are talking to them asking them what they want to see. Our whole theme of local ecology is because Pasqualina reached out to board members of the town and asked what they wanted. I really like the reciprocal relationship that comes from this. This is making art that the world will definitely see.”