In an alleyway off of Essex Street in Lawrence, there’s a beautiful and striking scene: two brick walls covered in enormous, colorful murals that stretch from top to bottom and end to end of the sides of two big buildings. One wall features huge, pop art–inspired portraits of beloved music icons like Bob Marley, Prince, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Alicia Keys. On the opposite wall is a more surrealistic scene where two children blow dandelion seeds that transform into flowers and flying birds as they float away, with the words “Make your dream come true” soaring above the children’s heads.
These murals are the work of Eric Allshouse, a visual arts teacher at Lawrence High School, and his students, who spend several days each summer beautifying sections of the city with their paintings. So far, the Lawrence Mural Arts Program, in partnership with Valley Works Career Center and the Essex Art Center, has created more than 10 large-scale public murals and is planning more for this summer.
“You just find a role for each kid,” Allshouse says as he describes the projects. “It’s inspiring to watch the kids succeed when they have so many challenges [in their lives].”
Allshouse says he hopes the murals are educational, uplifting, and inspirational.
“I know everybody who comes by loves it,” says Reina Lebron, a paralegal at Lagana & Associates, which is located in one of the embellished buildings.
The art is inspirational not only for the city and the kids who create it, but also for Allshouse himself. In fact, it’s Allshouse’s students and their art classes that have inspired his latest work: a series of portraits of some of the world’s most notable people, painted in the same colorful pop art style as many of the Lawrence murals.
Allshouse noticed that one of his students’ favorite assignments is creating ink portraits from photos that have been enlarged and had their contrast altered using Photoshop. Using the adjusted photos as a guide helps the students learn to draw faces with a grid. After they’ve done their drawing, the students can color their portraits with whatever colors they like.
Although he’s been teaching at Lawrence High School for 10 years, Allshouse says he had never tried making one of the ink portraits himself until recently, when he made a portrait of Marilyn Monroe during one of his classes. Soon, he found himself making more and more portraits, until he had created more than 100 of them.
The result is an engaging and exciting portrait series called “Icons in Ink” that recalls the work of Andy Warhol in their colorful, surreal depictions of people who’ve permeated our culture. The series was recently shown at UnchARTed Gallery, Studios, Café & Bar in Lowell, where co-founder Michael F. Dailey, Jr., talked about how much he loved the bright, graphic pieces that covered the gallery walls.
“I love how clean and colorful it is,” Dailey says. “It’s like pop art in its purest form.”
The portraits depict people like Lowell native Jack Kerouac, J. K. Rowling, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bruce Lee, Tina Fey, Julia Child, Princess Diana, Jacques Cousteau, Roger Federer, Aldous Huxley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Allshouse’s subjects often have little in common, except for one thing.
“They’re all positive influences,” Allshouse says.
Allshouse has become a positive influence himself among his students. He started his art career selling prints of his work on the road, driving around the country to concerts and festivals. But a desire to settle down led him to teaching, first at the Essex Art Center and then at Lawrence High School.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he says.
Now, he teaches painting and mural painting classes, and is also Lawrence High School’s tennis coach. He says his art students are motivated, excited, and happy to come to class.
“They love art, so it’s a win-win,” he says, describing how happy and “energized” it makes him to see his students get out and create art, whether it’s in his classroom or in the community. He knows that as their art teacher, Allshouse inspires his students to create. But admiration and respect is a two-way street with Allshouse, who says he’s got “some super-talented kids” in his classes.
“I might inspire them, but equally they inspire me right back,” he says. He points out that Lawrence is the poorest city in the state, and that his students sometimes face tough circumstances at home. They’re often busy learning English as they’re trying to get through high school, too. Despite their challenges, so many of them rise up, doing well in school, becoming bilingual, going to college, and all the while loving art.
“They overcome,” Allshouse says. “These kids, they work their butts off…. They make it. They make it out of the most dire circumstances. They find success in life.”