NOTE: I’ve been commissioned by the Essex County Community Foundation to help document/promote cultural projects from its Creative County Initiative, which is supported by Boston’s Barr Foundation.
On a broiling Saturday morning in late July, Helen Bur was seated on the hot sidewalk on the Judson Street side of Beverly’s Cabot Theatre signing her name at the bottom corner of the three-story-tall mural that she had painted from July 8 to 20.
Then she maneuvered a lift between a house and building on the other side of the street to elevate above the rooftops for an overall view of her finished painting. It shows a ring of people holding up a chair with a person standing upon it.
“It’s a metaphor,” says Bur, a 28-year-old British painter based in London and who grew up in Chichester on England’s south coast. “It was inspired by The Cabot and how buildings like this are really important for the community. When people work together they can raise others up.”
During the weeks Bur was working on her mural, Alex Senna, a 37-year-old Brazilian artist, painted a mural of a man daydreaming in a field on the other end of the building.
J. Casey Soward, the executive director of The Cabot since 2015, has long wanted to use the walls on the outside of the century-old theater to show all the creativity that’s going on inside the theater, says Cal Inguanti, until recently The Cabot’s associate director of marketing. Murals, they hoped, would attract more people downtown, “to bolster and tie together the Beverly Arts District” and “tie together Cabot Street.”
In partnership with Beyond Walls, the Lynn mural festival and placemaking initiative, they won funding from the Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative. The muralists were picked based on their experience, style, and how they would add to the community. The project is one of a dozen cultural efforts that the 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.
“I like to be inspired by the place of the mural, the space that it’s in. You have to realize this painting is going to be occupying people’s world, it’s in their face,” Bur says. “I try to respond to the environment.”
She works in a brushy, realist style. In this case, she posed and photographed housemates and friends as well as some folks she met when she arrived in Beverly. Then she digitally collaged these together to sketch out her composition. She paints solely with brushes, unusual here these days when many muralists come out of the world of graffiti (or draw inspiration from it) and favor spray paint.
“I prefer it,” Bur says of her technique. “It’s more environmentally friendly. Spray paint, you can’t mix colors. You’ve got to work with what they’ve got. It’s very flat and plastic-y. I like to see the brushstrokes, so it looks like a painting.”
Alex Senna started with a base of acrylic paint then spraypainted outlines on top for his cartoony black-and-white mural on the other end of The Cabot. It depicts a man in a striped shirt laying in grass, daydreaming. “I tried to make it a metaphor for what the Cabot is,” Senna says. Movies, music, theater. “It’s very related to dreams.”
Senna, who grew up in Orlândia, Brazil, and now lives in São Paulo, used to paint vivid graffiti murals on the streets, emulating the others he saw around him. “To me, graffiti was super colorful,” Senna says. But being colorblind, he felt he’d found his way when he switched to black and white. “It was very like lightning.”
Murals, he says, boost communities. “It really can help the self-esteem and to put humans in a better place, to feel better. It’s funny how art brings people together,” Senna says. “A lot of times when I’m painting, people start to talk to each other.”
He says painting outdoors has helped him get a richer understanding of communities. “São Paulo is a big city. Painting made me notice it. Living in my bubble, I would probably only know a few neighborhoods. With my painting I know, not all, but many. And I met a lot of people. It made me see the city in a lot of different ways.”
Senna says, “First, I saw all the social problems of the city. You are there. You have to lose and let go of a lot of concepts you have of stuff. People are afraid of anything before you do it. You can go anywhere if you go with respect and be humble. I went to a bunch of dangerous places and was well treated. I went to terrible neighborhoods and they had amazing sunsets.”
“It’s an exchange,” Senna says. “That exchange opened my eyes to a lot of stuff, important stuff. It opened my eyes to people.”
Photos copyright 2019 Greg Cook.
If this is the kind of coverage of arts, cultures and activisms you appreciate, please support Wonderland by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting.