Decrepit neighborhoods can spring back to life like works of art, one brushstroke at a time.
So it is with a swath of the Acre called Decatur WAY (Water, Art and You), a now-paved art alleyway of paint and poetry, a once-overgrown pathway to trouble strewn with hypodermic needles and the worst grit of urban life.
On Oct. 4, the latest in a series of Decatur WAY improvements spurred by UMass Lowell and Dave Ouellette’s community group Acre Coming Together Improving Our Neighborhood (ACTION) was unveiled on the back wall of Cote’s, a century-old neighborhood market and local institution: a 16-foot-wide, 8-foot-tall mural of Acre people and landmarks, painted by seven current and former UMass Lowell Art & Design students.
The mural was funded from Chancellor Jacquie Moloney’s 2020 grant program, used to further the goals of the university’s strategic plan. Ouellette won one of 40 $2,000 grants, then contacted the university for artists.
Senior art major Mary Connell captained the effort, gathering a diverse set of UML student artists to work with her. Despite scheduling issues, including Connell’s own two weeks studying art history in France, they completed the project over the summer. Before they picked up a paintbrush, the artists took a walking tour of the Acre with History Prof. Bob Forrant to season their collective understanding. By the project’s end, they had created a painting large enough that a notch had to be cut to fit over Cote’s venting system.
In addition to Connell, the artists are Anna McCarthy ’19, Adel DiPersio ’20, Yahira Torres ’20 and 2018 alumni Dana Cram, Austin Wells and Julie Howard.
“What we tried to do was build up a picture of the people in Lowell, in the Acre, and make it cohesive.” -Artist Dana Cram ’18
It is a joyous, diverse neighborhood portrait with dancing and recreation, surrounded by Acre landmarks. “What it shows is art and safety and community,” says Connell. “It’s a celebration of the community. It definitely symbolizes the bond between the community and the university, as well as the city of Lowell.”
The process started with a lot of drafting and sketches.
“What we tried to do was build up a picture of the people in Lowell, in the Acre, and make it cohesive. What we wanted to show of the Acre are things that couldn’t be anywhere else,” says Cram.
“Here’s an example of a great experience for the students,” says Art and Design Prof. Stephen Mishol, who also helped with the project. “They had to work as a team to figure out how to do such a large work using diverse style and hold it all together.”
At the unveiling, Moloney noted that it had been seven years since the university took over the land where University Crossing now stands and that “two years ago, we joined the city of Lowell and the Acre Neighborhood Group in creating this outdoor art gallery and green alleyway.”
Ouellette “put his heart and soul into the work, making this a great place for the people of the Acre neighborhood,” she said.
Moloney stressed the importance of community partnerships and the university’s role in helping to preserve local history.
“We are not a university that builds fences,” she said.
Ouellette called Decatur WAY “a living art and poetry alleyway designed to always be evolving.”
He called the university “a great partner” in revitalizing the area, and Decatur WAY “one of the best examples of a true community project.”
“You are true artists,” Ouellette told the student painters.