BOSTON – Beyond Walls founder Al Wilson describes his leap into the non-profit world as a “perfect storm.” In 2016 he was a tech sales and operations leader opening offices around the country. In his travels, he frequently admired the way public art had the power to engage people and, in myriad ways, strengthen communities.
If it worked so well in cities like Philadelphia and Miami he wondered, “Why couldn’t that work in Lynn?” (Al worked in Lynn after college and later moved to the North Shore.) He was already serving on a 28-person committee in Lynn tasked with addressing needs identified in a community-wide survey. And he was reading TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie’s book “Start Something That Matters.” He laughs remembering the factors that seemed to be pointing him toward a major change. “Someone’s trying to tell me something here!”
He seized an opportunity that has been enriching Lynn and other “gateway cities” ever since. (The state defines gateway cities as having a population between 35,000 and 250,000 and an average educational attainment rate and household income below the state average. There are 26 gateway cities in the Commonwealth.)
Al explains that community needs drive Beyond Walls’ mission. Its first project was the installation of artistic, multi-colored lighting in three MBTA underpasses. The areas were dark, unfriendly and—many residents say—dangerous. People described running across dimly lit streets and dodging cars on their way to and from the trains.
With more than $200,000 in donated hardware from Philips and Philips Color Kinetics, a Mass Development crowd-funding effort and 10 weeks of donated labor from IBEW Local 103 electricians, Beyond Walls coordinated an award-winning project that also pulled in students from Lynn Tech High School.
Al jokes that the underpass lighting project aged him 10 years. But the project’s success and acclaim were a defining moment for an organization that launched its first Street Art festival in 2017 and now boasts 86 huge murals in downtown Lynn.
The group partners with community members and artists who hail from New England and all over the world. Look around Lynn and you’ll see the work of acclaimed street artists from Portugal, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and more. “We curate to the demographics and cultures of the communities we serve,” Al says proudly.
Immediately after the first murals went up in Lynn, other cities and towns began calling. To date, Beyond Walls has commissioned work in 11 cities and towns in Massachusetts.
Beyond Walls has also developed an educational resource around the art with after-school programs. This summer, two returning artists collaborated with young women in Lynn’s Girls Inc. Their mural—one of five new works created in the summer of 2023– addresses climate change and the environment.
Canadian artist Kevin Ledo and California artist Samantha Robison say they enjoy working in Lynn because the community appreciates their contribution. Sam says the affirmation is wonderful. “People walk by us and say, ‘Thank you so much! We love what you do!’ It feels really good to be supported by the local people,” Beyond Walls provides lodging for the artists and supplies their materials and equipment. The organization further welcomes artists with “extras” like massage therapy and gift cards to use in the community.
“There’s a big aspect of this that’s community development,” Al explains. He delights in watching people gather beneath the art to talk about it. The diversity and history reflected in the work sparks conversation. It is also giving Lynn’s downtown businesses a boost. “They stop in a little coffee shop, and they decide to stay for lunch.”
Al points to the ripple effect of the extra business as fuel for the economy’s engine. “It’s what really makes a business successful… it makes it possible to hire within the community. And that’s also why we do this work.”
D’Empanadas manager Roberto Lantigua agrees that Lynn’s expanding showcase of public art is bringing more customers to the restaurant. Beyond the bottom line, he says it is also inspiring the next generation of civic leaders. “The boys and girls in town, they love it,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Art isn’t the organization’s only contribution. In early 2020, with the COVID crisis threatening lives and decimating business, the organization pivoted from commissioning art to fabricating portable handwashing stations and outdoor dining barriers. Al says that area shelters, soup kitchens and health care providers were “crying out” for handwashing stations. Working with Lynn Tech students, Beyond Walls created free-standing stainless steel sinks complete with 20-gallon water tanks and foot pumps. With solar-powered lights, coils to heat the water, and biodegradable soap they made what people needed. Beyond Walls sent more than 100 handwashing stations all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
“If we weren’t as tied into the community, we wouldn’t have heard from those nurses at health centers or people at soup kitchens,” Al said. They followed up the handwashing stations (WASH) with modular outdoor dining barriers they called FOLD. Roughly a dozen restaurants put up the stylish, shiny barriers including the critically acclaimed Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn which uses them to this day.
Al says COVID gave Beyond Walls an opportunity to prove that, when necessary, it could move quickly to meet a need. “We take a creative lens to community-fed challenges of the urban environment,” Al said
Among Beyond Walls’ needs is donated hardware. As a non-profit, the organization has developed relationships with organizations and companies that care about mission and contributing to the work. Specialists, including architects and fabricators are also key collaborators.
Beyond Walls applies for federal and state funding but tries not to “tap” the finances of the communities they serve. It has put out the call to people, businesses, and elected officials in Massachusetts’ “gateway cities” for mural submissions for 2024 and 2024. Al says that anyone can apply. He says, in cities where Beyond Walls is activating spaces, positive change is happening, and the reason is a simple one. “I think anything that brings people together can facilitate change,” Al said.
Beyond Walls will working on new murals in Haverhill September 15-September 30.