LAWRENCE — On a narrow, hard-packed strip of land wedged between a nightclub and a law office on a downtown street, 11 local teenagers are learning lessons in art, teamwork and hometown pride.
Over the next few days, the teens will cover the dreary red brick wall beside the vacant Essex Street lot with a brightly colored collage of images of the musicians they love – an eclectic mix that includes Bob Marley, Romeo Santos, Prince and Leonard Bernstein – as the first step in building a public park that also will include flower beds, benches and a cobblestone walk.
“I love her style – the dreads, everything,” said Cindy Davila, a 17-year-old senior at Lawrence High School, taking a break from the work yesterday to explain why she chose to paint her space on the 90-foot-long wall with an image of Lauryn Hill, a Grammy Award winning rapper who has recorded 16 albums.
“The coolest part is that the kids chose the themes, designed the murals and will paint them,” said Eric Allshouse, a visual arts teacher at Lawrence High with an infectious enthusiasm who helped conceive of the project and is overseeing the effort. “I just steer the ship to make sure we don’t crash.”
Allshouse has worked with other students to paint other murals with other themes in Lawrence, including one depicting sports stars like Larry Bird at a handball court in Costello Park. This summer, he and the Essex Arts Center formalized the effort into the Lawrence Mural Arts Program. They recruited the teens at Valley Works, a South Union Street employment center that draws on a federal grant to pay the teens the $8-an-hour minimum wage.
Leslie Costello, executive director at the Essex Arts Center, said paying the teens for their work is key to the program’s success.