NEWARK, NJ — The Four Corners intersection of Broad and Market streets in downtown Newark is now witnessing its walls explode with color as the district works to restore its faded glory through a public arts project.
"It's in our interest to speak to history as we see it. This is a collective effort to create a beautiful narrative-based streetscape about those histories," said Rebecca Jampol, project manager and curator of the first phase of the new Four Corners Public Arts initiative. "This project is really an opportunity for artists to claim space in downtown Newark as things change."
The initial stage of the Four Corners Public Arts project, a public-private partnership between real estate developer RBH Group and real estate investment firm Paramount Assets, along with the City of Newark via Invest Newark (formally NCEDC), the Newark Downtown District (NDD) and Newark Arts, will finish on Nov. 14, then eventually conclude in the spring of 2020.
The first phase of the plan began last weekend as artists began painting facade and surface murals on and surrounding Treat Place and Beaver Street, close to the well-known crossroads in the heart of downtown.
For many, Treat Place and Beaver Street are the type of forgotten byways lost in the swirling streetscape of a large city like Newark. But part of the Public Arts project is to improve the lighting and walkability of these previously dim streets as a way of bringing them back to life.
"From a local level, think about it - for a very long time, Treat Place was not a place where you would normally walk down to see, unless you were looking for something in particular," said Manuel Acevedo, a Bronx-based multi-discipline artist whose work has often been featured in Newark. "There was nothing here. Now, there will be."
Acevedo is specifically working on a mural that memorializes Newark native Jerry Gant, the late legendary and renowned visual and performing artist who treated the city as his canvas.
"Jerry was interested in the international arts scene as well, but his strength was in Newark," said Acevedo, whose mural is part of a wider effort between local artists and Gant's estate to make sure that his work is preserved, archived and accessible in the future. "Most of his inspiration came from this community through hip-hop, reggae, jazz and poetry. He meant a lot to many of us."
Other artists are exploring different parts of Newark's history and culture in their murals. Jo-El Lopez, an artist who has a studio in Newark's Gallery Aferro and has worked in the city for the past seven years, is painting an image of a Native American Lenni Lenape woman. She is surrounded by the type of stained glass windows seen in Newark's Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
"She is the guardian of the city. She's watching over us," said Lopez, whose work is also currently on display at the Newark Museum. "This is where we're at now, in a changing Newark. Let's honor the ancestors before us. They're still with us somehow. They're around, we just don't see them. But the more we strive to see them, appreciate them, and learn more about them and their place in the history of Newark, it's all good."
For Newark-based artist Armisey Smith, high up on a ladder painting a giant sunflower, a plant venerated by the Lenni Lenape who lived on the land she loomed above, teaching onlookers about part of Newark's history is one of the best roles any artist can play.
"People need to be educated because they're on their phones all the time. They don't dig as deep as they need to about different cultures," said Smith, re-examining one of the bright yellow flower petals she was painting. "They should know the original names that make up the landscape around them. This project is a great way for people to learn more about the Lenni-Lenapes and their relationship to nature. They were all connected. We are all connected."
Jampol is now deeply connected to Newark. The co-director of Project for Empty Space and visiting professor of design at Rutgers University-Newark, she recently married Randy "Haze" Harris, a native Newark artist. Her one-year-old daughter was born in Newark. Looking up and down Treat Place, she can envision her family, and public art made by local artists, there for years to come.
"I can't wait to bring my daughter here when it's a colorful representation of the city we live in. I'm so excited about the murals empowering our youth and our future," Jampol said. "Just because things are changing rapidly doesn't mean that we can't grow with those changes and that there can't be extremely exciting and supportive opportunities brought to the table for the local artist community."