'I See Myself In Her': Creating Representation In New Afro-Pollinator Mural In Burlington's Old North End
This summer don't be surprised to see new art on once-vacant walls in Vermont’s biggest city. One artist family is behind many of these recent murals.
VPR reporter Marlon Hyde joined Weekend Edition host Mary Engisch to talk more about how, with the help of neighborhoods, Black creators are painting public art that represents and helps define a community.
Mary Engisch: Marlon, recently you went to the ONE Community Center in Burlington’s Old North End. It was an annual big block party with music and food and artists and lots of community members there, celebrating their neighborhood.
You attended this community paint event led by Juniper Creative. Can you tell us a little about who Juniper Creative is?
Marlon Hyde: Juniper Creative is a Vermont-based Black and Dominican family collective. They facilitate community mural projects. And the artists, dad Will Kasso Condry, mom Jennifer Herrera Condry and daughter Alexa Herrera Condry, make up the group.
The mural at this location, at the ONE Community Center, is the second in a series from Juniper Creative, called the Afro-pollinator series. These murals depict real, living people who impact their communities, and they’re painted to look almost mystical and magical.
Marlon, if you could, could you take us along for the ride? And let’s hear a little bit of what you heard and saw at the mural painting project.
On a recent sunny Saturday, a parking lot in Burlington’s Old North End transformed into an energy-filled outdoor community center.
A big bouncy house attracted the attention of the ONE’s smallest residents. The smells of seasoned rice, falafel and pies wafted from food stands.
The rhythmic vibrations of hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean music danced through the air.
A long table suitable for the Last Supper sat under a massive purple and white stencil tacked onto a red brick wall on the back of the market. It created an outline of a majestic Black woman with wings, smiling down upon everyone.
She awaited her wardrobe and makeup. That was the job of the painters assembled for the community paint.
Jennifer Herrera Condry is the creative director for Juniper Creative. She says it’s powerful to see BIPOC faces reflected in art.
“You know, the art world in and of itself has always been led by white-bodied gatekeepers," she said. "And public art in the state of Vermont has, is not immune to that either. And so, understanding that it's important to see Black and Brown bodies reflected in beautiful, technically excellent artwork, in the public sector, is so powerful."
“Understanding that it's important to see Black and Brown bodies reflected in beautiful, technically excellent artwork, in the public sector, is so powerful.”
Jennifer's husband, muralist Will Kasso Condry, did the bulk of the painting from atop a hydraulic lift that rose up in the sky. He said these murals are much more than just artwork: it’s representation.
“We like to call our murals ‘fingerprints,'" he said. "They're all similar, but they're very different… We feel we have a responsibility to make sure that we're promoting a demographic of this city that typically goes unnoticed. Black people in this community are visible, and they're going to be even more visible after we get done painting.”
Jennifer and Will’s daughter, Alexa, was the model for the first installment in the Afro-pollinator mural series. It’s painted on the wall at Champlain Elementary School in Burlington.
The reaction she gets from young students of color testifies to the power of community art.
“You can just see how much it gives the youth confidence, right?" Alexa said. "They're like, that's me. I see myself in her. I see myself in them. I see myself everywhere. And it's in art, and it's colorful, it's beautiful. It attracts the eye. Seeing art, art makes the world go round."
Volunteers were invited to paint certain shapes and colors to be added to the wings on the mural. The mural was completed on Aug. 11.
Mary Engisch: Marlon, thanks so much for your reporting! Tell me your top takeaway from the event.
Marlon Hyde: Community art events like this one are a great opportunity to bring people together and show support for one another. I would enjoy having more events aimed at promoting and supporting diverse communities. Representation matters! Especially when it is a member of the community that is being memorialized.
I reached out to the person whom the “Moringa” mural is modeled after — she's a DJ and a writer and a medicine woman, Mercedes Mack, who was born and raised in the Old North End. Here's what she has to say about being larger than life in mural form in her neighborhood for decades to come:
Mercedes Mack: You know, it's called "Moringa, The Medicine Woman," and the thing about a medicine woman and medicine person was that they really helped direct a person to the truth, that they are their greatest teacher. They are their greatest healer. Like, really within the person is the medicine and the cure.
"When they look up at it, they see that the illumination really comes from your own hands, like your own being. That's what lights you up, that's what gives you wings..."
I really, really have faith that when people see that mural, that they feel good about themselves. When they look up at it, they see that the illumination really comes from your own hands, like your own being. That's what lights you up, that's what gives you wings, that you can see your own light and be illuminated and fly, take off. No limits.