By Katharine Webster
major Urdilinya Smith
spray-painted graffiti on the side of Mahoney Hall last month – and she got paid to do it.
Then, over the next two weeks, she helped artist Sophy Tuttle
cover up the graffiti with a mural depicting six plants and animals on the Massachusetts endangered species list.
In the process, Smith learned how Tuttle uses a graffiti grid to scale up her mural designs, as well as how the artist adjusts paint colors on the fly.
“I really liked the graffiti grid. I never get to use spray paint, so I had fun with that,” Smith says. “The most interesting thing was that there were some (purple) berries that constantly changed color over the course of a few days. I learned that you have to take your cues from the colors around it; you have to be willing to change things.”
Smith was paid for two weeks of work as a site manager by Project LEARN
, a city nonprofit that organizes ArtUp Lowell
, a community coalition that sponsors mural projects around the city in partnership with Beyond Walls, an arts nonprofit in Lynn, Massachusetts.
In summer 2021, ArtUp Lowell and Beyond Walls sponsored two major murals on downtown buildings, says Autumn Kleiner ’22
, grants and communications specialist for Project LEARN. This August, ArtUp Lowell and Beyond Walls brought nine muralists to the city to work on eight new murals, including the two at UMass Lowell, as part of a four-month mural festival spanning five Massachusetts cities.
Tuttle’s mural faces Broadway and the South Campus quadrangle, while the internationally renowned Puerto Rican muralist “Bikismo”
(Joshua Santos Rivera) painted a Caribbean hermit crab, or cobito
, on the Pinanski radiation research lab’s containment shell, facing VFW Highway.
Bikismo, who is known for murals that look like 3D, reflective chrome objects, counts Michael Jordan, Bad Bunny and the crown prince of Dubai among his clients. He says he was inspired to paint the “Chrome Cobito” on the reactor shell for two reasons.
“The hermit crab is a symbol that represents the Caribbean, where I come from,” he says. “Also, the tank is a shell, so it’s a shell on a shell.”
Another mural artist participating in ArtUp Lowell, “Golden,” spray-painted a rainbow band of colors around the tank shell, with the warmest colors behind the hermit crab. Bikismo also was assisted by Humberto Olivieri Ortiz, a fellow mural artist from Puerto Rico.
University planning director Adam Baacke
, who represents the university on the ArtUp Lowell coalition, says Chancellor Julie Chen
and Provost Joseph Hartman
were strong supporters of the project, which is part of UML’s ongoing effort to bring more art to the campus.
“Eight or 10 years ago, we looked around and said, ‘We have a lot of blank walls on this campus, both indoors and out,’” Baacke says.
The university began changing that by exhibiting, purchasing and commissioning student art, restoring the WPA-era murals in Coburn Hall and commissioning local artists to create works for the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center
For large-scale outdoor murals, though, it needed the right partner. Enter ArtUp Lowell, which began as a program to bring local artists’ works to the walls of the Lowell Community Health Center and transitioned a few years ago to a citywide street art and mural collaborative that includes city officials, nonprofits, businesses, UML and Middlesex Community College. City muralists mingled with regional and international artists during this summer’s two-week mural painting fest.
Baacke says that while the university offered the two specific mural sites on campus and had a voice in choosing artists from among those who submitted proposals, Beyond Walls made the final assignments of specific artists to each site – and the artists chose their subjects.
“While the university is a contributor to ArtUp Lowell and we’re excited to be a part of it, this is a community initiative that the university is participating in,” Baacke says. “It’s grounded in the idea of bringing prominent art to enliven the city and bringing in multicultural art and artists.”
Baacke says that having Bikismo on campus was exciting.
“He’s a big name, and his style is so amazing,” Baacke enthused. “He manages to make a two-dimensional surface look three-dimensional and reflective, like chrome.”
Baacke also noted Tuttle’s close ties to Lowell. She grew up in Littleton, Massachusetts, and moved into Western Avenue Studios, an arts nonprofit in Lowell that offers both studio space and live-work lofts for artists, for a year during the pandemic. Curation250, a gallery in Mill No. 5 in downtown Lowell, exhibited her work two years ago.
Tuttle says her paintings and murals are influenced and inspired by her grandmother, a botanical artist, as well as the “save the whales” environmental movement and the woods in which she grew up. She has painted murals around New England, from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, to Harvard University’s new campus in the Allston neighborhood of Boston.
“All of my work is about climate change, the environment and extinction,” she says.
Tuttle first started painting murals after a 2013 artist residency in Oaxaca, Mexico. The city’s contemporary art museum opened its walls to internationally renowned muralists while she was there. Fascinated by their work, she stayed in Oaxaca for a year after her one-month residency ended, painting murals all over the city with local artists while learning their techniques.
“I like the physicality of mural painting – being outside and the big movements – and I enjoy the interactions with people stopping by,” she says. “I like that it changes the space, becomes a landmark that people recognize. And hopefully, it gets people to stop and think.”
Tuttle showed Smith some of the techniques that she has learned from other mural artists, like how to use the graffiti grid. She and Smith will give a talk on campus this fall.
Now Smith, a Lowell native, is inspired to design and paint a mural of her own at a local business. “I’d like to get at least one or two murals up,” she says.