‘Artivist’ mural done by youth artists highlights Sunset Park community issues


SUNSET PARK — A group of young artists unveiled a mural in Sunset Park on Aug. 28 that seeks to highlight issues within the community such as gentrification and leftover detrimental effects of Superstorm Sandy.

At the corner of 56th Street and First Avenue, the mural stretches across a building on the edge of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor. It was done by a group of 18 artists from ages 19 to 24 as part of Groundswell NYC’s Artivist Allstars Program.

Groundswell, and specifically its flagship program called the Summer Leadership Institute, seeks to support young artists by creating public murals over the five boroughs between July and August. Done in partnership with the NYC Economic Development Corporation and the National Academy of Design, the Sunset Park mural was led by teaching artist Raul Ayala.

Ayala and his team partook in 10 different sessions from May to late June in order to plan the mural, including a listening session with community members held at the Brooklyn Army Terminal.

Ayala said the group of young artists talked to community members and organizations to learn about Sunset Park and the unique issues residents face there. Members of the group also had conversations, did readings and exercises, and went to museums or watched movies to inform their approach to the mural.

For example, the young artists included images of water throughout the mural after a community member suggested having it represent some of what is on the other side of the building — New York Harbor.

The mural includes images of the Statue of Liberty being hit by intense waves of water Ayal said represents Superstorm Sandy, as well as a Mayan figure surrounded by roots being stomped on by modern-looking business shoes. Elsewhere, average-looking people can be seen cleaning the water, with images of nature and a goddess with open-arms depicted further down. 

“The fact that we can see our thoughts about liberation, our thoughts about place, about our traditions, many ways that we can intersect and the ways that we can see the future,” Ayala told the Brooklyn Reporter, “that’s what awes me, because they’re youth.”

Ayala said leading the project gave him the feeling of passing the torch to his students, saying they are “really, really great artists,” and not just for their age.

Brandon Bendter, an alumni of Groundswell who was part of the group that painted the mural, said he heard about the organization when a representative came into one of his high school art classes. Since then, he’s participated in three different mural projects, something he said he loves to do.

When describing the mural, Bendter said the water goddess depicted in the beginning, surrounded by snakes, represents nature facing corporate oppression. When the snakes are eventually stifled by the roots of the tree, and people are shown cleaning the water, Bendter said it is meant to communicate a more hopeful future.

“The rest of the mural is to show the after-effect of [the oppression] and how people work to fix and improve that and a projection for a better future,” Bendter told the Brooklyn Reporter. “So the tree is a part of that aftermath and as you can see people are trying to clean up the water and fix everything that’s going on and stop the destruction”

Dread Scott, a well-known artist and academician with the National Academy of Design, partnered with Groundswell for the second year in a row on the project. He brought the group to his studio, and said he discussed the larger concepts of art as activism.

Scott said that despite New York City being home to some of the most talented artists, it lacks public art in comparison to other cities around the world. He said Groundswell’s projects that make more murals like these, taking community input into account and providing public art, are rare but important.

“I think it’s really wonderful when an organization like Groundswell can actually do a mural of this caliber that’s out here,” Scott said. “There is not much like this, and I wish there were more.”

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