When Public Art Made the Walls Talk

Path of the World, Richard C. Lee gymnasium high school, summer 1977.

It’s a riot of color and design, a range of faces representing every human emotion from happiness to concern. The city swirls behind the people, the perspective almost creating a sense of vertigo. And the people’s hands reach out to us still, across four decades and through a paint job that erased them.Path of the World, which at one time graced the walls of the gymnasium at Richard C. Lee High School, is just one mural brought back to life in “Celebrating CETA: A Look Back At New Haven’s Community Mural Program” — a fascinating exhibit that has something to say about New Haven’s proclaimed place as the cultural capital of the state today.

“Celebrating CETA” runs now until Sept. 13 in the gallery in the Ives branch of the New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street.

Curated by Laura Macaluso, the exhibit walks the viewer through the history of the community mural program run under the auspices of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). “For less than five years at the end of the 1970s, New Haven was home to a thriving mural program, the likes of which had not been seen since the 1930s under the WPA,” Macaluso writes. “While CETA provided funding for all sorts of community and training programs, New Haven was unusual in the state of Connecticut by instituting a mural program headed by emerging local artists who developed relationships with neighborhoods and organizations around the Elm City, bringing public art to new places. The total number of CETA mural projects numbered close to fifty, with some surviving for thirty or forty years.”

Togetherness.

The murals in the project dotted the city. Togetherness, directed by artist Terry Lennox, appeared on the corner of Ivy and Newhall in the summer of 1976.

A Howard Avenue mural from the same year featured Cinque from the Amistad.

We Can Do It All Better Together in Peace, in Joy, in Love appeared on the walls of the city welfare office on Bassett Street, the culmination of two years of work completed in 1979.

In addition to reproductions of the finished murals, the exhibit contains some photos that seam even more meaningful, of the murals on the path to completion — like this one of the making of Spirit of ‘76, which appeared on the building of Frank’s Paint and Hardware Store in the Hill. This project, directed by artist Ruth Resnick (now Johnson), was a collaboration with Angel L. Miranda, Jr. of Puerto Rican Youth Services but also, as the picture shows, involved work from neighborhood kids.

As murals appeared throughout the city, then-Mayor Frank Logue wrote to Resnick in 1976: “It’s great to see the change in the look of a street corner accomplished by some paint, some imagination and the considerable talents of you and your group of CETA youths. We will try to keep the ‘cake’ baking.”Bake it did for another couple years. But by 1980 the funding for the mural program ran out and the program ended. Macaluso points out that new efforts filled the gap, like City Spirit Artists. New Haven still has plenty of public art, from the murals of notable New Haveners dotting downtown to the geometric pattern on the spiraling Crown Street garage exit ramp that draws tourists’ eyes. New Haven-based artist Kwadwo Adae has installed murals in businesses and along the Farmington Canal bike trail. An association of nonprofits secured funding for a mural on an East Rock overpass this June. But none of these projects are at the scale of what CETA accomplished, nor do any of them have the kind of local and state government support that CETA had.

In a sense this shows in the longevity of some of the murals. Parents, students and staff of the Dr. Martin Luther King School created a mural on the playground wall, Sports, which persisted until the school was torn down in 2013. Amistad High School, which also has public art, was built in its place. Several murals appeared in the Q House on Dixwell Avenue and remained there until the building’s demolition in 2017.

The lasting impact of the CETA program casts an interesting reflection on the relationship between the city, the state, and New Haven’s arts today. New Haven is both booming and facing severe financial constraints. Is funding the arts really more important than funding, say, schools or health clinics or employment programs? Maybe not. But public officials have made reference time and again to New Haven as the state’s cultural capital, a move that has been a part of enticing developers to invest millions of dollars in the city. Meanwhile, arts programs face budget cuts and the story of many individual artists is one of doing a lot with a little. “Celebrating CETA” is a reminder of how a robust public arts program can help transform a place. It suggests that if the arts scene today really is part of what’s bringing more money and energy to New Haven, then perhaps the city, the state, and developers could put a little more money into the arts scene itself — in a way that truly benefits the people who already live, work, and create here.

“Celebrating CETA” runs at the Ives Gallery in the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, 133 Elm St. Visit the gallery’s website for hours and more information.