BRATTLEBORO — Sitting at tables under a large tent that provides cover from a strong sun on this summer Saturday, a group of young artists excitedly but quietly work with markers, paint, and other art supplies.
Several teens paint on three sturdy wood panels where the stark outlines of large, plain swaths of warm, bright colors have just begun coming into focus.
Under the creative guidance of Juniper Creative Arts, a Black- and Dominican-based family arts collective based in Brandon, the young people are making a community mural as a summer project of Youth4Change, a student-led activist group that makes its home there, at The Root Social Justice Center on Williams Street.
The young people - diverse in age, gender, race, and abilities - have been working for a full week on the mural with the Jupiter team - Will Kasso Condry, Jennifer Herrera Condry, and their daughter, Alexa Herrera Condry.
At this point, the clock is ticking. Within the next 24 hours, the Juniper team will finish the mural, a true collaborative process that they have refined over the course of producing approximately 20 such murals, mostly for schools in Vermont.
The three mural panels will be installed on the building's wall facing Williams Street.
Only four days prior, the project started with everyone involved brainstorming.
“We discussed what we're interested in and what inspires us and what we're passionate about. And all of us were kind of throwing out ideas,” says Z Muhammad, a Youth4Change member who participated in the project.
“And then, also, we were asked the question of what our fears were,” they continue. “We kind of took like all these things we were passionate about and what inspires us and mixed them with a combination of what we're afraid of.”
The Juniper team guided the process of transforming those concepts into a sketch on a whiteboard inside The Root's space.
“The youth have worked on all these little pieces together into their design that they created,” Herrera Condry says.
The group's creative process is birthing powerful, confident imagery. Birds, fish, and bees bear witness to a Black mermaid surging up and out of the water, which transforms into a dazzling array of peacock feathers.
“The whole piece kind of represents coming out of those fears, because a lot of people said they were afraid of drowning in the water that they were being stuck in,” Muhammad said. “So the mermaid really represents coming out of all of these fears until we like who we truly are.”
On this last day, participants are just finishing up creating small pieces of art that will blend into the large-scale completed design, guided by a rough schematic on a whiteboard inside The Root's space that one young artist, who did not wish to be identified, proudly shows to a visitor.
Nearby, on a chalkboard, a rough calculation tallies up approximately 160 pieces of these mural details.
“There are all these pollinators that they can do side climbing butterflies, bees and birds,” Herrera Condry says. “And there's some itty bitty butterflies.”
The concept of pollinators has carried special meaning through the mural-making process, with multiple young artists pointing out the presence of the bees in the design of the piece.
One through-line of Juniper's work is what they call “Afro-Pollinators,” mythical, mystical, and magical beings that owe their visual form to real people of color in their own communities.
“This is about joy,” Shela Linton, the executive director of The Root, says amid the bustle.
“This is about love,” she says. “This is about visibility. This is about creativity. Again, this is about center of Blackness.”
“A lot of times when people see murals that are Black-centered, they immediately think it's about somebody who's died. Like, is that Breonna Taylor? George Floyd?” Linton says. “That is not this.”
In the center of the activity outside, Will Kasso Condry holds court, drawing and gently - and gregariously - coaching the kids.
“We're able to work with these young people,” Kasso Condry says. “It just gives us it continuously gives us new insight, new language.”
Calling the youth “profound,” he gestures to the mural in progress. “This is the concept that they created. And we're letting them lead - you know, our work is more in the facilitation.”
Kasso Condry says he gently keeps the kids on track to help them work as a team to do their respective parts.
“Jennifer and I have over 40 years combined experience in doing this work,” he says.
Linton says that she became acquainted with Will, Jennifer, and Alexa as people.
“But then I saw their work and I was blown away,” she says. “I mean, blown away. So for me, it's been a vision for five years, for Juniper Creative Arts to come here and work with our youth and be part of our Root community. And now it's finally coming to fruition. So for me, this is a dream come true.”
Coming together as individuals and community
Gillian Lucero-Love, the Youth4Change coordinator who describes herself as the “adult ally” of the group, says the project blossomed into its current size and scope after federal funding became available through the Afterschool and Summer Expanding Access Grants program from Vermont Afterschool.
“We love Will and Jennifer, we love the work that they're doing, the artists that they are,” Lucero-Love says, describing them as “Black artists in the state of Vermont who are very unapologetic and representing who they want and what they want.”
Lucero-Love says that the mural project is one example of “the types of collaborations that we really love - you know, the ones where everyone gets to come together and just bring their full selves and their visions, but also collaboratively come up with them.”
“Part of why we also had really enjoyed working with them was just their personal connection to the work that they do,” she adds. “Will has shared some at different times about the history of mural projects and how art murals can help just really bring communities together.”
The young artists learned how murals “can allow for presence and voice that hasn't always been there in the past - and really also create spaces that are a lot more welcoming or inviting,” Lucero-Love says.
The summer program has been a huge success, she says, with 20 youth participating at various stages of the mural process. It's been a pollination process of its own.
Those participating include a core of regular Youth4Change members and other young people new to the organization - who, Lucero-Love says, at times were unfamiliar with the expectations for moving through a place where people of color and LGBTQ+ people are not in the margins but in the center of the page.
“We want to continue to grow community and build these relationships with the youth of our community,” Lucero-Love says. “It was great to see some of them come out of their shells a bit, too, and see them share with pride about their experiences with their families and their loved ones.”
The mural weaves so many aspects of community, Lucero-Love says.
“We know that there's a personal connection, there's a history, there's a knowledge and understanding and that basically this whole project together would really align just so well with who we are at The Root, who the Youth4Change members are, and what they've named as their key values,” she says. “So, yeah - overall, it's super exciting stuff.”
Representation in public art
Z Muhammad not only participated in creating the mural. The young, nonbinary, Black artist also served as the reference model for the central Afro-Pollinator figure in the mural - the mermaid.
“Just having a BIPOC person that's like on a public art as a face is really meaningful, specifically with Vermont being so predominantly white,” they say.
“I'm so happy with the way it turned out, and it really came together, especially with like all of our individual arts and the peacock eyes and all those things and then the paint and then the spray paint on top of it,” they add.
Muhammad pointed out that even the choices of media used in the creation of the mural makes a statement - the mural and the work of Juniper Creative Arts takes a medium like spray paint, which has been stigmatized and associated with criminal behavior, and elevates it, and the artwork, with pride and without apology.
As an artist who has wanted to create art in Brattleboro, they say they have experienced frustration with constraints on creativity and content. This mural project, by contrast, was empowering in its process and its representation.
What do they see when they look at the completed mural?
“I see me as like a mystical being that I've always kind of seen myself as, especially in representation, too - my race and also my gender,” Muhammad says. “It's just really amazing for me.”