By Keith Eddings
---- — 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.
“Kids in under-served populations need to make money when they’re teenagers because they need to contribute to their family’s income,” Costello said. “We’re giving them employment. We’re teaching them art. We’re making them employable.”
Like most public art, the project has several benefactors.
Besides the arts center, Valley Works and Allshouse, who is using his teacher’s salary to make up shortfalls in his supply budget, the mural project’s benefactors include the Merrimack Valley Sandbox Initiative, which donated $500 for supplies, and the city’s Department of Community Development, which is securing permission from landlords to use the sides of their buildings as canvasses.
“We picked out vacant lots we’re trying to fix up and walls that it would be nice to have murals on,” said Art McCabe, the city’s community development manager.
“To me, (the Essex Street lot) was a great lot,’’ he said. “It’s right in the retail area of the city that we’re trying to enhance.”
A few blocks west on Essex Street, the teens recently completed a striking black-and-white portrait of Robert Frost on top of a brilliant bright red background, inscripted with an iconic verse from Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
Frost, like Bernstein, had deep Lawrence roots.
Yesterday, the teens swirled around the lot beside the bar and law office as they organized their next project, picking their colors from a dozen or so paint cans and climbing up and down four ladders propped against the wall.
“We want a lot of colors for John Lennon – tie-died, orange, red, purple,” said Davila, the Lawrence High senior. “Bright colors that will bring people in.”