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Tape Art’s Temporary Murals Suggest Possibilities for Towns

Updated: 2 days ago

At the end of July, silhouettes of people drawn with green and blue tape began appearing across Groveland, West Newbury and Merrimac. They depicted locals from the past hundred years—police chiefs, garden club members, the people who started the Santa parade, Jamaican immigrants who picked apples on a local farm. The life-sized portraits hung on the front doors of homes, on trees, on public buildings.

“They were popping up all over the place,” says Jennifer Leonard-Solis, co-chair of the Pentucket Arts Foundation, which brought in Providence’s Tape Art group for the “Drawing From Our Past: A Tri-Town Tape Art Festival” with support from the Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative. “That was when it got really exciting for us. The buzz was so strong.”

Leonard-Solis says, “It added such a whimsy. Just going down to the post offices was such a fun experience because you’d find out who’s next.”

“People were so excited to see these popping up all over and finding these things,” says Leah Smith, one of the leaders of Tape Art.

“It wound up being something very personal. Some people were recognizing people they actually knew,” Leonard-Solis says. “People wanted to go around to see who was hanging up and where. … You wanted to travel around and see. That was another way we were creating a bond between these three communities.”

Looking For A Wall

The Tri-Town Tape Art Festival began in April 2018, when Leonard-Solis was driving to the Essex County Community Foundation’s Arts & Culture Summit at The Cabot in Beverly with Marcia Nadeau, chair of Pentucket Regional High School’s Fine and Performing Arts Department.

“On the way down, she was describing to me this great professional development she went to,” Leonard-Solis recalls. At a teacher training at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Nadeau had attended a workshop by Tape Art, a Providence group that creates temporary murals with tape. Nadeau told her, “If only you could get them to come here.”

So the Pentucket Arts Foundation applied to the Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative for funding to do just that.

They won the grant and invited the Tape Art folks to visit. The project is one of a dozen cultural efforts that the foundation’s initiative, with backing from Boston’s

Barr Foundation, is supporting to mobilize North Shore artists, arts organizations and community and business leaders to enhance life in Essex County.

Tape Art’s Michael Townsend and Smith drove around Merrimac, Groveland and West Newbury searching for “the biggest most beautiful wall,” Townsend says. “What we were trying to find was some sense of a unifying physical space.”

But there aren’t big, centrally-located walls in these these rural towns, about an hour’s drive north of Boston.

Then the Pentucket Arts Foundation invited them to watch a video that the organization produced called “Voices of West Newbury” to celebrate the town’s bicentennial and the Arts Foundation’s 15th anniversary. “It’s a bunch of old timers talking about the essence of West Newbury,” Leonard-Solis says.

(Watch “Voices of West Newbury.”)

Townsend and Smith were struck by a panoramic photo in the documentary. It was a group portrait of performers in “an outrageously huge pageant” put on in 1919 to celebrate the Centennial of West Newbury. “I think it was upwards of 300 people participated. I think it went back to the start of time,” Townsend says.

That photo inspired the direction they’d take. “Maybe we’re not looking for a wall of people,” Townsend says. “What if in 2019, we throw another pageant and we take our cue from this?”

“What we’re doing is a decentralized mural because all these are small towns that don’t have a big urban center to display things on,” Townsend says. “We would give everyone else the power to find their own wall. It thrilled us that you could drive down the street and every few blocks find someone from the pageant.”

Smith says, “People could make street art themselves.”

Impermanence

“The first documented tape art drawing was Sept. 16, 1989,” Townsend says.

Townsend was part of a group of Providence teens who haunted the city at night, using tape to sketch chariots, trains and roller coasters in the style of police chalk-outlines on sidewalks, courtyards, abandoned buildings. Their practice was to always remove the tape within 24 hours “to make way for new artwork that would appear before the sun came up.”

“At the time, Providence was a sort of ghost town. We were taking advantage of this temporary medium to draw on buildings and walls,” Townsend recalls. “…The work just got bigger and bigger and bigger, until after three years the drawings were 100 feet long and 40 feet high.”

In the 1990s, they began teaching Tape Art. Then after the Sept. 11 attacks, they created “a rogue September 11th memorial” on walls across New York of life-sized portraits of every fireman and airline passenger who died at the World Trade Center. Since then they’ve lead workshops across the country and have created Tape Art murals at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Worcester Art Museum, Providence’s RISD Museum, the New York Aquarium.

“The temporary nature is very much a defining quality of our Tape Art process,” Townsend says. “By using a temporary medium, just as a technical thing, we’re able to have an incredible amount of freedom.”

“That opens it up to doing it in public institutions,” says Smith, who’s been involved since 2011.

“The act of removal is an act of declaring a space as an active space,” Townsend says. “By removing it, you’re essentially reminding people that spaces are fluid.”

“Now it’s your turn. If you want to see more things happen on this building, it’s up to you,” Smith explains.

“We have no desire to make things permanent,” Townsend says.

Larger Than Life

For Merrimac, Groveland and West Newbury, Smith says, “We were interested in creating a collection of figures that would be interesting to re-meet, their own community.”

Their collaborator, historian Emily Bryant, began a Google document that they shared with the Pentucket Arts Foundation, local libraries and historical societies. The question, as Leonard-Solis recalls, was “What are the kinds of people we would want to have if we were going to do a mural of the past hundred years of Groveland, West Newbury and Merrimac?”

“A lot of these people are characters who are sometimes larger than life,” Townsend says.

“They’re the personalities of the community,” Smith says. “Names that everyone knows, but also names that maybe only a couple people wanted to see represented.”

At the end of the school year in the spring, Tape Art gave presentations to art students at Pentucket Regional High School and created a Tape Art mural with them in the school.

Then over a few days beginning on July 12, Smith and Townsend created a temporary Tape Art mural in each town on “the most shockingly blank wall we could find,” Townsend says.

“The idea was for it to be a surprise to the community, a little bit,” Leonard-Solis says. “Each mural was related to something in the town’s past.”

On the Groveland’s Langley-Adams Public Library, Tape Art created a scene of evergreen trees and crashed cars, a “tribute to the Pines Speedway, which is right next door,” Townsend says.

Across five garage doors of Kenoza Vending on Route 110 in Merrimac, they used blue and green tape to sketch people and dogs and a horse in boats atop roiling waters. “Back in 1936, apparently most of New England was hit by a crazy flood,” Smith says.

On the cinder block walls of the West Newbury Food Mart, they celebrated the community’s historic comb manufacturing. “That one is the woman with incredibly long hair being combed and then around the corner is the machine that makes the combs,” Townsend says.

“The machines that we drew were comb pressing machines that could cut all the teeth in one pull,” Smith says.

Smith says the murals helped people see their communities with fresh eyes. “People who had lived there their entire lives or had lived there and come back were looking at buildings they had long stopped looking at. They could see their town again by having these walls transformed even just a little bit.”

Pageant

The murals served as a preview for the “Pageant Picnic Day” at Pentucket Regional Middle School in West Newbury on the afternoon of Saturday, July 27. After an introduction to the ways of Tape Art, dozens of participants picked one of the green tape silhouettes displayed on the building’s back brick walls to embellish. Cards identifying the local historical figures and their life stories served as guides and inspiration.

“It’s really important that the community has a success,” Smith says. Participants need to be able to transcend the fears people have of doing art. “So they can be set up to succeed and feel like they did something awesome.”

“I saw a lot of people coming who don’t usually come to our arts events that we put on throughout the year,” Leonard-Solis says.

“The whole thing was such a great learning experience for a small foundation like us. That’s one of the things I like about the Essex County Community Foundation, that they would take a chance on us,” Leonard-Solis says. “It certainly raised awareness in the community for our foundation.”

At the end of that afternoon, participants were invited to take the tape drawings home with them to display the portraits across the three towns for a week—on the front doors, on trees, on public buildings.

One gauge of the community interest this sparked was the burst of discussion on Facebook, Leonard-Solis says. “The amount of clicks and shares was, like, 10 fold what we had ever gotten in the past 15 years,” she says. “Then people would go on Facebook and they were talking to each other, they were sharing it with each other and taking pictures and sharing.”

When the tape figures came down, Leonard-Solis says, people were posting on social media: “What happened to those murals?” She says, “Everyone seemed to miss them when they were gone.”

Giant Tape Ball

On Saturday, Aug. 3, Tape Art and the Pentucket Arts Foundation invited everyone back to Pentucket Regional Middle School for final presentation documenting the project, a community conversation, and a talk about Tape Art’s past projects.

On the stage at the front of the auditorium was a giant tape ball. It was all the tape from the project, removed from the walls and smooshed up into a lump about the size of a “small easy chair,” Townsend says.

“When the murals come down, everyone loves to see the tape ball. It’s a fascinating way to see effort,” Townsend says.

“The going away is a significant part of it because it makes you realize something that you didn’t know you wanted,” Leonard-Solis says. “It’s a subtle way of suggesting the value of art and the value of connecting as human beings.”

“Here was this thing that was something we created together and now we’re returning it to its original form. But it’s something we’ll always have together,” Leonard-Solis says. “You didn’t have to be a great artist or believe you’re a great artist to get involved. That’s the kind of thing we need in this community because people are a little averse to taking creative risks.”

Leonard-Solis says, “That has to be empowering to the community. You do it in this situation, you can do it on other things in the community. We can tackle other problems in the community.”

Greg Cook is a Boston-based arts writer covering some of the public art projects supported by Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative.

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