SNA, local artists celebrate completion of murals on Extra Space Storage building

After a process lasting about a decade, the murals on the Extra Space Storage building on McBride Street are finally complete, and have been popular with the neighborhood so far. 

The murals are part of a community benefit package from the project at the  former Flanagan & Seaton site at 3529 Washington St., which is now the Vita condominiums and the Extra Space storage facility.  Other community benefits include the community garden next to the storage building which opened last year, and the community room inside the storage building which is operated by Volunteers of America Massachusetts and is now available for free for community use.

These community benefits were negotiated by the Stonybrook Neighborhood Association (SNA) when the initial project was proposed as a way to improve the lives of the Jamaica Plain community. 

The Gazette spoke with Jennifer Uhrhane, Chair of the SNA Mural Committee, as well as Dana Woulfe of Studio Fresh, the company that painted the murals, Sharif Muhammad, the artist who designed the large mural on the side of the building, and Julia Csekö, the artist who designed the three square murals on the parking lot side of the building, to learn more about the process and about the murals themselves. 

Uhrhane explained that committees were set up for each of the community benefits discussed with the developer of the project.

“Once the development project actually got going is when the committees started doing their work on carrying out the benefits that the development agreed to incorporate,” she said. “The project itself, even the construction, took a long time.”

An environmental cleanup of the site had to be done before construction could begin, and various other delays drew out the project, but eventually the buildings were built and the planning for the murals kicked into high gear. 

Uhrhane said that “the murals took a while for a number of reasons,” including that they had to wait for the building construction to be complete before they could be painted, and that the SNA put together a jury of seven local art professionals to judge submissions in a “fair and public process.”

She said that the five month call for entry process was “two-tier,” as artists were asked to first submit work that they had previously completed, and then a “site-specific proposal for the building,” so time was needed to allow for artists to come up with ideas. More than 30 artists submitted proposals for the mural spaces, which take up a combined 2500 square feet on the building’s facade.

After Muhammad and Csekö were selected from eight finalists, the developer needed to get quotes on the cost of painting the murals, since the artists themselves would not be the ones doing it. 

Sharif Muhammad’s mural, titled Rainbow Swag, was painted first, on the northwest corner of the storage building. Dana Woulfe of Studio Fresh said that there were a few issues with weather, and they had to rent a lift to get up to the top of the building, so time was of the essence in completing this mural. 

“We projected the image up there,” he said, which is “the easiest way to get large scale stuff.” The outline of the image was traced and then filled in with rich colors.

Woulfe said that he and his colleague Josh Falk worked “from top to bottom,” and mixed the colors while on the lift. 

“Sharif’s had a lot of different colors going on,” he said. “A lot of the work on Sharif’s was us trying to match colors on the site once we got the projection up.”

For Csekö’s mural, “we masked off the letters,” he said, and “created patterns that fit the square” then painted color over the tape. Once that was dry, the tape was removed and white was left underneath. “Hers was a little more straightforward,” Woulfe said. 

Muhammad’s mural took about seven to 10 days to complete, because there were about three rain days, Woulfe and Falk said, and Csekö’s took about three or four days. The duo worked about eight hours each day.

“It’s always cool to work with other artists…in the way they envisioned it,” Woulfe said, and “translate what they do into something large.”

Woulfe said that he and Falk had both spent time in this area when they were in college, and to see murals like this is “rewarding.” The two had collaborated for a while on murals and other art in the Boston area, but “formalized” the business within the last decade and now paint murals and graphics in a variety of locations. “We appreciate being included in the project,” Woulfe said. 

Sharif Muhammad told the Gazette that “I’ve always had dreams of creating a mural in Boston,” but as a full-time high school teacher and father of two young children, he was waiting for the right time to make that dream a reality. 

“Art is something I do as a hobby,” he said, but when he was tagged in a Facebook post about the call for artists for this mural project, he knew this was the right opportunity for him, and he applied.

“I worked very hard to make sure I got everything in on time and it just felt like the moment I’ve been waiting for,” he said. 

Muhammad did not create a brand new piece for his mural. Instead, “I went back into my own archives,” and thought that his piece, called Rainbow Swag, would be a perfect fit. The original piece was inverted so the woman’s face is facing the other direction in the mural version.

“This piece just sort of worked because it worked because it sort of matches, in my mind, the neighborhood and what it represents,” Muhammad said. “It’s a neighborhood that’s about acceptance of everybody no matter who they are or where they come from…” 

The piece depicts a queer Black woman, and Muhammad said he realizes “how that could be a problem in most places in the country,” and he added that “the proximity to English High School I think made it the right piece. High school is the age where you start to struggle with identity…it just sort of made sense. It’s the piece that I want those young people to see.”

Muhammad is also a Jamaica Plain resident and after seeing the finished product, he said, “I’ve just been blown away by it.” He said he visited several times during the painting process and spoke with Woulfe and Falk as they painted. 

“Seeing your work on a scale like that is just mind blowing,” he said. “I’m very pleased with it for sure. The thesis of my work is representation. Just seeing the image of a Black woman I created that big on a wall.” He said it’s “to me, the pinnacle of it all. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do.” 

Julia Csekö’s mural is titled A Message to the Future, and consists of three smaller squares on the parking lot side of the storage building. The murals feature inspirational words from influential local people and bright paint colors to draw the eye of passersby.

Csekö does a lot of public art, and said that she’s “always kind of scouring the internet for proposals for places. I tend to look for work that’s more local.”

She said she has been working on a “written series” for 16 years now, and “it’s something I don’t ever want to stop working with,” she said. Her work typically involves “using words of referential thinkers, philosophers, and people who left kind of a legacy in written form.” 

 For this mural, she chose to work with people who are still alive and who are connected to the Jamaica Plain community. “The whole idea is to uplift and showcase the people that make JP’s community special, creative, interesting…” she said. 

Csekö partnered with JP artist, storyteller, and poet Eddie Maisonet on this project.

“For this one, I was like I want to give Eddie full range of figuring out what he thinks should be on the walls in JP,” she said. “I’ve learned that all these public pieces become long conversations. Once it’s up, it’s going to be in public for a long time.”

She said that “we’re literally dealing with a development and with the community benefit that’s coming from the development,” and that Maisonet had been working on the idea of how gentrification impacts local communities as well as those who work to preserve those communities. “It all made sense,” Csekö said.

“Through Eddie came Julia Martin,” she said, who is a “fantastic community activist.” The first panel features words from Martin, who is an elder member of the Jamaica Plain community. The second panel features Maisonet’s words, and the third features quotes from JP’s Ernesto “Eroc” Arroyo-Montano, who is “an educator, artist, facilitator, organizer, youth worker, community activist, and a proud father of three,” according to Csekö’s website. 

“The idea is to kind of uplift and celebrate the importance of community activism and community organizing,” Csekö said. “The three people that are presented in this mural represent that really well.”

Csekö also said that the vibrant colors chosen for the mural were done so deliberately. She said that they are “really pleasing, really attractive colors” that will draw people’s attention to the text. “That’s been my strategy throughout this series of paintings I’ve been creating.”

When she saw the final product, Csekö said, “I was really happy. I did not expect them to be that vibrant. When you’re in that space, the scale is more impressive. You feel more engulfed by the work itself.”

Overall, she said that “it was really fun, and I really enjoyed the process of having these conversations with people. One thing that is really exciting is to work with people that are alive” and continuing to make a difference in their community. 

“I think they look great,” Urhane said of both murals. “I think they’re a huge asset to the neighborhood. One of the great things is how bright and colorful they are.”

She said that Muhammad’s is so large that it can really be seen from far away, and “Julia’s has a really great message for the community.” 

Urhane also said that she’s heard neighbors talking about it and people have been down to the area to take photos of the murals. “The community’s really excited to see it,” she said.

“There isn’t always the opportunity to have developers incorporate things like this into their projects. In the end, they make them so much more successful, she said.” Uhrhane added that the SNA has historically been a champion of community benefits like these to make the neighborhood a better place to live. 

A celebration for the murals, co-sponsored by the SNA and Spontaneous Celebrations, will be held on May 21 from 12-2pm at Call Street Field.

“It’s really important that developers give support to the arts and culture,” Csekö said. “We cannot have people doing new developments in the city, wherever it is, without giving community benefits to the communities they’re coming into.”

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