July 19, 2023 | Dennis Hohenberger
CHICOPEE — The city experienced a recent creative transformation led by Beyond Walls. The nonprofit has engaged artists, including Polish muralist Mateusz Gapski, known worldwide as Bezt, to create two large-scale public art downtown.
The Bezt mural adorns the wall at 10 Center St., in the shadow of the City Hall tower. A second installation by Portuguese artist Vhils (Alexandre Farto) was slated for 256 Exchange St. Unpredictable weather over the Fourth of July weekend delayed both projects.
The project, initiated by Beyond Walls, based in Lynn, invites internationally renowned artists to create vibrant murals and installations. The organization establishes safe and active spaces reflecting the communities’ cultural identities as part of this undertaking.
Al Wilson, founder of Beyond Walls, said, “We curate the art by bringing in artists representing the cultural identities of the communities we’re invited to serve.”
This particular endeavor sees the collaboration of Bezt and Vhils from Portugal. While Bezt’s mural embraces Chicopee’s Polish roots, Vhils’ work on an installation at 258 Exchange St. reflects the city’s Portuguese heritage.
Wilson, whose ties to Chicopee date to his college years, understood the significance of representing a community’s cultural identity. “I got to know the Portuguese community well, and I got to know the Polish impact,” he said.
According to Wilson, murals are more than just beautification; they are also an educational resource. Representing the city’s diverse cultural fabric, they help local communities connect more deeply with their roots.
Bezt has painted walls globally, including in Miami, Paris, and Germany. When invited by Beyond Walls, Bezt was drawn to the wall at Center St and agreed to participate in the project.
Bezt’s mural features a large dog in a grassy, flowery field. The artist prefers viewers to form their interpretations. “I never explain the idea to the person because I don’t want to tell him what to think. Come here, check it yourself, and get your idea of what’s on the wall,” he said.
The Beyond Walls project evolved through a collaboration with the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, the mayor’s office, the City Council, and support from the business community and nonprofits.
Wilson was optimistic about the potential of this initiative to spark the local economy. Public art encourages pedestrian activity, which can boost local commerce.
“As you walk, you get thirsty, grab a cup of coffee, a baked good here, you’ve got some fantastic Polish food here. And you take in that next piece,” Wilson said.
The organization has plans to create more artworks that reflect Chicopee’s diversity. Bezt was opened to future projects in Chicopee, especially tied to the Polish roots. He noted the Polish names on business fronts downtown.
Chicopee is one of several Gateway Cities to benefit from Beyond Walls. Over the past two years, the organization has completed 13 similar projects in Holyoke, transforming the downtown area into a walkable art exhibit.
Beyond Wall’s tours in Holyoke have become commonplace as groups move from block to block in search of artworks.
“The future of Beyond Walls in Chicopee looks promising,” Wilson said. By creating colorful murals and installations that resonate with local culture, the organization looks to more than alter the physical landscape.
The city of Chicopee hosted the highly anticipated unveiling June 14, showcasing the etched relief created by Vhils.
“The presence of public art plays a pivotal role in shaping our community,” stated Wilson. “It breathes life into our surroundings and serves as a catalyst for creativity and dialogue.”
Vhils and his team chipped away at the side of 258 Exchange St. The result: a multi-stored masterpiece honoring the city’s Portuguese community and the workers who toiled in Industrial-Age mills.
The relief shows a bearded worker surrounded by the City of Chicopee’s official seal. Though only weeks since inception, the 3-D rendering appears centuries old, worn by time and the elements.
Mayor John L. Vieau, who hosted a ribbon cutting and awarded a proclamation, acknowledged the transformative power of art. “When I was younger, arts and culture didn’t mean much to me other than maybe AC/DC and a little Led Zeppelin and doing ceramics at the Boys and Girls Club,” Vieau said.
However, he recognized the significance of the Beyond Walls initiative, which has turned mundane walls into unique spaces. The mayor said the artwork embodied Chicopee’s blue-collar roots and the workers who played a pivotal role in building the city.
Vhils, who could not attend the dedication, was born in 1987 in Portugal and lived on the outskirts of Lisbon. He pursued his education at the University of the Arts in London, Central Saint Martins, and Byam Shaw Fine Art Skills and Practices.
Polish muralist Mateusz Gapski, known internationally as Bezt, painted a mural steps from City Hall. The mural features a large dog in a grassy, flowery field. The artist prefers viewers to form their interpretations.
Bezt would not reveal the mural’s symbolism, leaving the task of interpreting the work to the viewer.
Chloe Soto, Chicopee’s communications and special projects manager, was crucial in bringing the Beyond Walls initiative to the city. Soto formed partnerships with nonprofits and secured grants for the project.
The key goals of Beyond Walls are to beautify downtown and stimulate economic growth. “We want to bring businesses back and people to come down. We’re just waiting for everybody else to find out about it,” Soto said.
Soto revealed plans to expand the initiative, aiming to secure additional grants for murals and public art projects throughout Chicopee, showcasing the city’s diversity and reinforcing its presence as a cultural and artistic destination.
State Sen. Jake R. Oliveira (D-Ludlow), a Portuguese American, praised the initiative for celebrating diversity through vibrant artworks. Oliveira commended Vhils, city officials and Beyond Walls. “It truly is what Chicopee represents best — the patchwork of cultures,” he said.
Oliveira is vice chair of the Tourism, Arts and Culture Development Committee. He shared his recent visit to the Polish Learning and Discovery Center in Chicopee, where discussions focused on future grants to support and promote arts in Massachusetts.
The mayor invited the community to view the works by Vhils and Betz, visit shops, dine out and reconnect with Chicopee’s downtown.