HOLYOKE — The city’s urban landscape has become a vibrant canvas, thanks to artists from Beyond Walls, a group dedicated to transforming public spaces and uplifting a community.
In partnership with the City of Holyoke, El Corazón de Holyoke and Nueva Esperanza Inc., the nonprofit has returned to create public artwork celebrating the city’s cultural diversity and history.
Beyond Walls, a Lynn nonprofit, focuses on large-scale outdoor murals and installations to promote community engagement and aesthetics. Walls along High and Main streets have become vibrant artworks, bursting with color, beauty, and symbolism.
Founded by Al Wilson in 2016, Beyond Walls is now in its second year of working with Holyoke. State grants and donations support the artists’ efforts. Nueva Esperanza hosted a welcome reception Wednesday night for the artists.
The 2022 effort included artists from Puerto Rico who worked with community members. Beyond Walls prioritizes integrating the artists and residents into its projects. “It showed us just how much fun and strong this community is,” Wilson said.
The organization’s broad mission is “to activate spaces to strengthen communities.” Wilson believes the work goes beyond art to embrace how people engage with their environment. Local artists assist and learn from Beyond Walls artists.
Rueben Rivera, born in the Dominican Republic, will create a mural near the Holyoke Health Center off Maple Street. The artist’s approach involves embracing the location and understanding the community’s needs and realities in keeping with Beyond Walls’ mission.
Now living in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Rivera trained in the neo-classical tradition, tutored by an uncle who was a priest and teacher at the local parish school. His exposure to graffiti while living in New York City and living a skateboarder lifestyle also shaped his artistic views.
“I disliked the idea of repeating what had been done before,” he said. “I couldn’t confine myself to a room and replicate what everyone else was doing.”
Beyond Walls offers Rivera the chance to work on a grand scale. He stressed the importance of connecting with the wall he’ll be working on.
“I love seeing the wall they assign me because sometimes you are forced to sketch something that doesn’t align with the location,” he said. “Being present at the site allows us to adapt our artwork to the project’s reality, considering factors like sunlight and materials that can enhance the visual experience.”
While collaboration and open communication are vital, Rivera must set boundaries and drive the artistic process. “The challenge with art is that the possibilities are endless,” he said. “At some point, you must establish guidelines and say, ‘This is our focus, this is the wall, these are the challenges.’ We must all agree on what is most important.”
Months of prep
Holyoke’s Mass in Motion coordinator, Stephanie Colón, praised Beyond Walls’ approach. “It’s months of preparation and making sure that it’s the most beneficial thing for our community,” she said.
Colón said the organization’s work has been transformative. The murals inspire artists and residents, reclaiming spaces and making them beautiful. Colón hopes that Beyond Walls will continue contributing to the city for years.
Colón said Mass in Motion was also about healthy lifestyles and staying active. Beyond Walls walking tours have sprung up and become staples at community events.
“I can walk from mural to mural, have a whole experience, be safe and secure, and enjoy something beautiful within my city,” she said. Beyond Walls is about reclaiming areas and bringing light and brightness to neighborhoods.
To Wilson, the murals are more than an aesthetic addition to the city. They’re a way to bring the community together. “It’s a party under every wall,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the most incredible pieces of art that pull in the community.”
For example, the ”Father and Baby Moose” work by acclaimed Portuguese-born artist Artur Bordalo, who uses the name Bordalo II, looms large at the end of Spring Street. According to Wilson, the artwork appears prominently in a book showcasing Bordalo II’s work.
Wilson said he hopes for an ongoing partnership with the City of Holyoke.