HOLYOKE — Internationally recognized artist Ruben Ubiera doesn’t plan the expansive murals he creates to enliven large and small cities worldwide until he sees the wall that he will paint in person.
So when he recently visited his Holyoke “canvas” — the back of the Holyoke Health Center located at 230 Maple St. — for the first time, ideas began racing through Ubiera’s mind. This week, the best of those ideas are flowing out of his hands and onto the wall that stretches 72 feet wide and 58 feet tall in a mural that when finished on Friday will serve as a tribute to Holyoke.
“My art reflects love and fear,” said Ubiera, as he described the emotions he evokes in his murals. Yet, he added that, while he freestyles everything around him, incorporating individuals and places into his work, he considers how “making street art is as close to magic as you can get.”
Ubiera’s work is all part of a massive project in which a 13 well-known artists from the Lynn-based nonprofit Beyond Walls converge on the city to create public artwork throughout the urban landscape. The large-scale outdoor murals and installations are designed to celebrate Holyoke’s cultural diversity and history and to promote community.
Beyond Walls, which partners with the city of Holyoke, Nueva Esperanza, Inc., and El Corazón, returned to Holyoke this month for the second straight year, and over the course of the last week artists have been converting walls on mostly downtown buildings into vibrant artworks, bursting with color, creativity and powerful storytelling. A year ago, Beyond Walls welcomed six artists who created murals on walls of nine downtown buildings.
“The residents, business owners and organizations all benefit from the murals in our city,” said Stephanie Colon, Mass in Motion coordinator in Holyoke’s Office of Planning and Economic Development. “Whether it’s because it’s where you live, where you work or where you play, the murals allow everyone to experience art in a different way than we’ve ever been able to experience here in Holyoke.”
Holyoke is the first stop on the Beyond Walls tour, which will next go to Chicopee before venturing to other cities in Massachusetts. Beyond Walls began as a volunteer project in 2016 led by current director Al Wilson.
Ubiera — a talkative and gregarious man — said late last week before he got started that his piece at the Holyoke Health Center will center around a gorilla, in line with nearly every one of his murals. But this will in no way be the only aspect of his design.
Though originally from the Dominican Republic and currently living in Miami, Ubiera said that he spent several days in Holyoke and the surrounding area, eating at local spots, in order to truly immerse himself in the local culture. In this way, his mural will pay tribute to the people of Holyoke.
Ubiera said that he likes walls that have “texture and history,” because “the soul of a city … can be seen by the art” within it. He has painted walls all across the world, but got his start in Miami, when he painted a mural featuring a gorilla. However, this gorilla was not just a plain portrait, but included vignettes featuring the people and places from all around the city.
Since this first mural, Ubiera includes a gorilla in each of his murals, though they are all unique to the city they are inspired by.
The gorilla is especially important to Ubiera because he believes that they are, as a species, “more human than humans.” In this way, he exposes the humanity in gorillas while depicting the actual humans who occupy a city, combining natural and urban life.
Though the recently retired CEO of the Holyoke Health Center, Jay Breines initially had some reservations about Ubiera’s gorilla concept. But he chose to embrace the art installation to demonstrate that he is “committed to this community.”
This year’s lineupJoining Ubiera at Beyond Walls this year are two of last year’s artists, Don Rimx and David Zayas, who have returned by popular request to work on a collaborative project. While many of the Beyond Walls artists are still working on their pieces, Rimx and Zayas have finished their portrait, located at 648 South Summer St. in Holyoke. Together, they have painted a 40-foot-wide and 51-foot-tall mural featuring a man creating a traditional Puerto Rican mask.
Zayas and Rimx are both from Puerto Rico and studied art together there in college. In this way, Zayas stated that their “work reflects [their] culture,” and will honor the many citizens of Holyoke who share in their Puerto Rican heritage.
As the artists complete their pieces this week, it is apparent that each piece will pay homage to the artist’s observations of Holyoke and its culture. Last year’s murals ranged in size, color scheme, and theme; one depicts a moose and its child, several are portraits, and one showcases a mandala-like floral creation.
Other artists featured this year are Alexis Diaz’s 37-foot-wide and 39-foot-tall mural at 284 Maple St. that represents the feeling of “leaving [one’s home country] to start a new life.” Diaz is from Puerto Rico.
The Maple Street building is large enough for a second mural, where German artist Case Maclaim is painting a 58-foot-wide by 39-foot-tall portrait of John Brown, the Springfield abolitionist who led an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.
The other artists’ work can be found at these locations:
■346 Race St., Columbian artist Gleo.
■660 South Bridge St., artist BKFOXX.
■ 648 South Summer St., artist Claudio Picasso.
■523 Main St., artist Cristhian Saravia.
■517 Main St., artists GOFIVE and TAKEONE will produce pieces on two walls.
■100 Appleton St., artist Andrés Cortes;
■Holyoke Community College, artist Betsy Casañas.
■ 1 Main St., artist o.hanimal.
World famousMany of the accomplished artists are well known throughout the street art world. The artist Gleo completed the largest mural by an individual artist last year in Wichita, Kansas for the Horizontes Project. She is known for her unique, pastel-focused style and incorporation of ancestral figures.
Artist BKFOXX is from Long Island, New York, and has painted murals in places ranging from Sweden to Pennsylvania. Recently, she produced a short film about a mural she painted in tribute to YouTuber Etika, a gaming streamer who died in 2019.
All of the artists are staying at Jay’s Bed and Breakfast in Holyoke. Ubiera said the artists know each other, with many living in Miami, where the city’s Wynwood neighborhood is known as a hotspot for muralists.
The Beyond Walls team partnered with the city of Holyoke, Nueva Esperanza, Inc., and El Corazón de Holyoke to make this tour happen. Nueva Esperanza, Inc. is a community development organization in Holyoke while El Corazón focuses on bringing art to the streets of Holyoke.
Building owners in Holyoke were invited to apply for a mural to be painted on their wall earlier this year. The owner of each building had to agree to provide water, electricity and bathroom access to the mural production team, as well as to help raise money for the mural.
Charlotte Maher, Beyond Walls art director, said many business owners were interested in the project.
“We received many enthusiastic applications encouraging more murals throughout the city, and as a result, we were able to expand this year’s project from six murals to 13 murals citywide. It’s been wonderful to see how many building owners were inspired by last year’s art installations, and to hear the excitement to host murals on their own buildings in Holyoke.”
Ideal walls are at least two stories, have minimal obstructions such as windows and pipes, and are publicly visible. Moreover, the building owner had to sign an agreement stating that the mural would be on the wall for at least two years. Though owners don’t choose what goes on their wall, the artist must be committed to representing Holyoke’s culture in their painting.
Five of the 13 projects this year are being funded by impact fees from cannabis revenue collected by the city. The eight other murals were paid for by local business fundraising, grants and individual donations.
Some artists, such as Ubiera, are providing free unofficial street art along walls in other spots citywide. Ubiera said he would try to create new street art at least once a day during his time here, claiming that street artists are the “epitome” of artists as their “art has no law.”
Additionally, there will be new murals appearing in Holyoke by local artists over the next few months, Maher said. These artists include Natasha Colon Ortiz, Tyronne Bowie and Gustavo Romero.
Beyond Walls is currently accepting applications from towns for their mural tour next summer on their website. Legislators, business owners, and citizens are encouraged to apply.