Brooklyn murals pay tribute to immigrants

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Photo: 20/ The left panel of the mural depicts the founders of the Norwegian Christian Home & Health Center along with a modern Norwegian family, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island.

Photo: 20/
The left panel of the mural depicts the founders of the Norwegian Christian Home & Health Center along with a modern Norwegian family, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island.

One wonderful thing about the Bay Ridge/Dyker Heights area is our wonderful early 19th century schools; these beautiful spaces to learn are filled with murals, stained glass, sculptures, paintings, and other artwork. Unfortunately, only those who attend or work in the school get to appreciate these public treasures.

I am happy to report that this fine tradition of connecting art to public schools is continuing through 20/20 Vision for Schools. According to their website, “20/20 Vision for Schools exists to transform public schools within a single generation of students. We achieve this by mobilizing students and community stakeholders with schools for sustainable change.” This vision is being beautifully articulated in the Bay Ridge/Dyker Heights area through their mural project.

Mural designs grow organically in partnership with other organizations, but unlike the past when students received already made artwork, they are now part of its creation. One mural, “Welcome” at PS 102, can be seen by the entire community in their publicly-accessible playground. This vibrant work of art is 875 square feet, celebrating the community’s immigrant diversity and depicting the word “welcome” in 43 languages, including Norwegian.

The most recent mural project, “Generations” was unveiled on the lawn at the Norwegian Christian Home & Health Center (NCH) on May 14, 2014. The artistic result is spectacular, but the collaborative process that birthed the piece is even more valuable. The school partner is McKinley JHS, in collaboration with 20/20 Vision, the Norwegian Christian Home & Health Center, and the Storefront.

Arlene Bakke Rutuelo, NCH Board Member and local activist, was contacted by Jeremy Del Rio, the Co-founder and Executive Director of 20/20 Vision for Schools. He “asked me to brainstorm on possible mural projects with non-profit organizations I am involved with; I was very excited. I knew about 20/20 Vision doing the beautiful mural at PS 102,” says Bakke Rutuelo.

She decided the Home would be a good collaborator for the 20/20 Vision for Schools project because “quite simply, I believe Art can cross boundaries and tell stories where spoken words cannot. The Norwegian Home has such an incredible history of serving the community for over 110 years. Taking artwork (the mural) to tell the story of the Norwegian Home’s service to the community in the past and bridging this history of serving for the future is beyond words.”

The NCH’s board chair George Jensen, a regular volunteer at the Home since childhood, adds: “Inter-generational collaborations foster a long-term view of community-building that values the unique contributions every generation can offer. We are delighted to house this mural as a lasting symbol of hospitality and goodwill.”

Del Rio also has a special connection to the Home. He explains, “On a personal level, the project at NCH was special because my Norwegian immigrant grandparents came to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, when they immigrated to the US in the 1930s, and were active members of the Norwegian community that built the home a century ago. The mural honors their legacy, and continues it by welcoming their new immigrant neighbors as the neighborhood continues to change.”

McKinley JHS was the school collaborator in the project, with students participating in the mural’s creation. Del Rio explains: “Their diverse student body attends classes in a veritable art museum inside their own building and created by their own hands, with instruction from outstanding art teachers. Our goal was to empower many of those same students to share their talents and creativity beyond the school’s four walls.” Since 2008 the school has been producing murals inside the school, so Principal Janice Geary was fully on board with the NCH mural.

Photo: 20/ The right panel depicts five immigrants and the flags of their home countries, honoring the backgrounds of the students who worked on the project.

Photo: 20/
The right panel depicts five immigrants and the flags of their home countries, honoring the backgrounds of the students who worked on the project.

NCH was included in the planning stages. Del Rio “engaged the executive and program staff at the home about possible themes related to immigration and community and legacy. They offered numerous suggestions and reference materials from NCH’s museum as well as residents. We engaged similar conversations with the students about their more recent experiences with immigration in the neighborhood. Their collective responses informed an initial concept, which was refined following a give-and-take with the NCH.”

Of course, choosing an artist that is the right fit for this type of project is essential. In this case it was Sam Wisneski, who also serves as the 20/20’s Creative Director. Wisneski worked on PS 102’s mural, “Welcome,” and it was during that venture that he developed the collaborative process used in the NCH mural project and other parts of Brooklyn.

Another community connection linked Wisneski to 20/20, as I discovered when I spotted Paul Curtis, Director of the Storefront, at the unveiling. As he explained, “The Storefront is a local art center that initially connected 20/20 Vision for School with Sam Wisneski for the ‘Welcome’ mural project at PS 102. We have continued to provide volunteer support over the last three years, including a regular volunteer to assist Sam with the students on this project.” The Storefront donates all proceeds from its art center to Living Water International, which provides clean drinking water overseas. Curtis adds, “We love Jeremy Del Rio’s vision for partnering with neighborhood stakeholders for the sake of raising the quality of education in our neighborhoods.

Of course, what we visually biased creatures mostly want to know is: what does it look like? The mural is two colorful panels outside the building. The left hand side depicts the founders of the NCH, Mr. & Mrs. Hansen, who saw the need of local widows and began by taking them into their own home, a touching inclusion. Bringing us to the present is a contemporary Norwegian family of three, identified by their Norwegian sweaters. The design also includes subtle squares of colors, and patches like a quilt and symbols of immigration: Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The commandment “Honor Thy Father and Mother,” which is also carved in the Home’s cornerstone, lies at the base of the piece. The right-hand panel has five people representing the five nationalities of the students who worked on the project, as well as flags from those countries, and again the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The second panel also bears a commandment at the bottom, “Love they neighbor as thyself.”

I really love the way that the piece is physically layered and crafted. To me the way the piece makes an abstract idea—the layers of history and memory representing those who reside, have resided, and will reside in this Home—into something more than tangible, into a concrete part of the artwork, is truly brilliant and beautiful. This succeeds on all levels: the piece’s symbols, its design, and the technique chosen. I asked Del Rio if this was intentional. He said, “Yes, that was the goal. I’m glad it worked!”

Since the finished mural was truly birthed from a joint venture, I thought it would be interesting to see what some of the collaborators thought about the finished product. Del Rio was quoted in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as saying, “This mural is nothing less than outstanding.”

Curtis: “I was blown away by the quality of the mural, but what impressed me the most is the pride that the students had in the finished project. They worked hard and put in many hours outside of their normal school assignments to complete the project. This is the kind of project that both builds confidence in students and helps them to see how their gifts and talents can be given back to make meaningful contributions to their community.”

Bakke Rutuelo: “That’s hard to put into words. As the saying goes, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ You really have to take the time and go and see the mural in person. It is truly beautiful and captures the spirit the Norwegian Home embodies—community service in its past, in its present, and in its future.”

This article originally appeared in the June 13, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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