BRATTLEBORO — Most people traveling past the sprawling retaining wall on High Street across from the High-Grove parking lot used to see the same pattern: spray-painted swear words, followed by a slapped-on coat of gray cover-up, followed by even more graffiti.
Jamie Mohr envisioned something else.
As director of downtown's Epsilon Spires, Mohr has helped turn the former First Baptist Church into a 425-seat performing arts space. When she heard complaints about the nearby wall, she decided to find a way to turn the concrete eyesore into a 2,280-square-foot canvas.
Enter the High Street Mural Project, a $25,000 collaboration between local designers and newly resettled Afghan artists set for public dedication this week.
“It's a major visual greeting point,” Mohr said in her pitch to rehabilitate the municipally owned wall that's almost as long as a football field. “If it's welcoming, it will give a nicer introduction to the community.”
The idea looked simple on paper: cover the wall first with primer, then a colorful landscape, then a coat of sealant that will allow the mural, if defaced, to be easily cleaned.
But that seemingly easy 1-2-3 promised to swallow up to 100 gallons of paint - a pricey proposition even before adding the rising costs of supply-chain and labor challenges.
Mohr nevertheless found help from the Vermont Natural Resources Council's Small Grants for Smart Growth, which gave her $1,500. Soon after, the state Department of Housing and Community Development's Better Places program invited her to raise $8,000 to receive $16,000 in matching money.
Launching an online crowdfunding campaign, Mohr turned to Brattleboro printmaker Daniel Chiaccio, owner of the local First Proof Press, and nearby Vernon graphic designer Calvin Laituri, whose clients include the trendsetting UPPAbaby stroller, car seat and infant accessories company.
Chiaccio and Laituri came up with a design picturing a Vermont vista morphing over the four seasons. They then tapped painting help from the ArtLords, a group of Afghan artists who created murals on bomb-sheltering “blast walls” in their homeland before recently resettling in the United States.
The project faced a few hurdles. Brattleboro's municipal Arts Committee voted unanimously in support, noting “the site lends itself well to the proposed artistic intervention.” The Selectboard approved the project unanimously, despite a wider debate about involving the public in the process of public art and the role of the Town Arts Committee in such projects.
Permission finally in hand, artists brushed on a base coat this summer, then added color and a clear protective cover as the foliage competed for attention this fall.
The mural has become an instant local landmark. When Commons Deputy Editor Randolph T. Holhut wanted to photograph Brattleboro resident Becca Balint as the first woman to win a Vermont congressional seat, he chose to pose her in front of a section of the mural.
“A lot of people have said the mural is the best thing to happen in this town in a while,” said Laituri, who's hoping to paint more.
Creators are set to celebrate their efforts Saturday, Nov. 19, with an Afghan-food-and-film event from 8 to 10 p.m. at Epsilon Spires at 190 Main St.
“We're really hoping if we take this neglected space and transform it into something,” Mohr said, “people will feel empowered to make change themselves.”