On a tall brick wall overlooking the Tannery in Newburyport, a towering great blue heron spreads its wings, neck outstretched. Lower down, a spiny sturgeon undulates, while a pair of plovers flits above. Behind all the creatures, bold colors—vibrant cobalt, deep crimson, marigold yellow—splash across the brick.
“It’s very expressive,” says Boston-based artist Felipe Ortiz, contemplating his mural and preparing to add some finishing touches on a sunny late-July day. “There’s a lot of movement and energy.”
The sprawling artwork is part of We Share One Sky, a public art project that is a collaboration among the Newburyport Art Association, the city of Newburyport, the Blochaus Art Gallery, and the Tannery Marketplace, a shopping complex located in a group of refurbished mill buildings.
The initiative, funded in large part by a grant from the Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative, will commission a dozen artists over the course of two years to create murals and other public art in downtown Newburyport. The artists are being selected to bring new points of view to a community that has often been steeped in traditional maritime imagery.
“We were hoping to break out of those traditions a bit, because there are so many different types of people who live in the area and have different perspectives of Newburyport,” says Lisa Naas, executive director of the Newburyport Art Association. “This mural project is very mission-driven and very much about inclusivity and diversity.”
The idea for the murals project first arose about two years ago, when Naas joined the art association and was talking with others in the community about how the organization could pursue its goal of increasing diversity in the Newburyport arts space. Naas came to the North Shore from Glasgow, Scotland, where an ongoing public art initiative has helped revitalize some traditionally overlooked and struggling parts of the city, she says. She wondered if something similar could be done in Newburyport.
Naas soon found local partners who embraced the idea, including Geordie Vining, a project manager with the city; David Hall of Hall and Moscow, the company that owns the Tannery; and Markus Sebastiano, founder of Blochaus Art Gallery. As the plan came together, the Essex County Community Foundation saw the potential as well, awarding the initiative a $25,000 grant, citing the potential of public art to make communities more welcoming and vibrant.
“Public art invites people in to have a different experience of the built environment,” says Karen Ristuben, program director of the foundation’s Creative County Initiative. “It is also a means of conveying messages and stories about our history, culture, and relationships to one another.”
Ortiz was the first artist selected for the project. He often paints birds—as an immigrant from Colombia, he finds himself attracted to their migratory nature and the way they connect places with their annual flights—but came to the project without a fixed design in mind, he says. Then, driving to his temporary residence on Plum Island one evening, he saw two great blue herons in the water and inspiration struck.
He began observing and researching the birds, and the idea for the mural soon developed. The idea of adding the sturgeon came about following conversations with local fishmongers.
“It was really interesting that all these things were falling into place right here,” he says.
Ortiz also gave the initiative its theme. During a discussion with Naas about the inclusive philosophy of the project and his own connection to bird imagery, he used the phrase, “We all share one sky.” The words resonated and became the name of the endeavor.
Jake Ginga, an artist of Native American heritage who incorporates indigenous iconography into his work, and muralist Sophy Tuttle, were chosen to complete the next projects.
Additional murals will be painted during the project on other walls within the Tannery complex. In addition, a series of empty windows in one of the mill buildings will host digital media installations. The hope is that additional building owners will offer up their walls as the project progresses and the community sees the impact it can have.
The plan also includes temporary works outside the Newburyport Art Association building, and a lineup of artists’ talks, walking tours, and interactive opportunities for the public to participate in art-making.
“We’re hoping the mural project will become a destination in itself,” Naas says.
For more on-the-wall art
In addition to Newburyport, the North Shore is home to several vibrant destinations for murals.
Punto Urban Art Museum, Salem
This social-justice-driven initiative has squeezed 75 murals into a three-block radius, creating an immersive outdoor artistic experience.
Roughly 50 murals in a wide range of subjects, sizes, and styles dot the downtown, turning even a casual stroll into a constant series of artistic discoveries.
Gloucester’s artistic heritage shines through on a stroll down Main Street, where art lovers will see a giant golden lobster looming overhead, panoramic ocean scenes, a tribute to Judith Sargent Murray, and more.