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Local artists reflect on city’s murals

From the reaches of Hyde Park to the heights of Downtown and beyond, there is art to be found streaked across building walls. Livening their surroundings with vibrant colors and striking images, many of these murals are painted by local Boston artists who strive to create conversation and share important messages.

you are loved mural on southampton street in boston
Southampton Street mural created by Boston-based mural artist Alex Cook. Muralists across the city aim for their murals to tell stories and impact the spaces they are located in. COURTESY OF ALEX COOK

Alex Cook is a Boston-based mural artist who has painted around 190 murals throughout the city and world since 1997. Cook began his painting career after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in painting.

“I was basically terrified about how to make a living as an artist,” he said. “I [had] this inspiration that I could skip the galleries, skip the middleman, if I could get somebody to let me make a painting on the wall of a public building.”

After creating his first mural at 23 years old in Northampton, Cook said he was hooked.

“[I] just really fell in love with the power that one has when you can put pictures in public places and basically be starting this public conversation with an idea that you had,” he said. “It was really just a very direct way to engage the world with my art.”

At first, he said he’d seek out blank walls he could get permission to paint on. Now, he receives jobs by word-of-mouth, via his social media and through the murals themselves.

Among some of Cook’s larger works in Boston is a 75-by-12 foot mural that reads “Welcome to Jackson Square” outside of the neighborhood’s T stop, as well as a 14-by-75 foot forest scene mural at 136 Lenox St. in Boston.

In 2013, Cook began a project titled “You are Loved” after working at a school in New Orleans whose principal had requested Cook create a mural to help “children feel more safe.” With that task, he decided to be blunt with his message by simply painting “You are Loved.”

“That kind of blew my mind, to be able to write those words on a wall, and from there I said ‘this is the project I’m going with,’” he said. “For the last seven-plus years, that has been the thing that has mostly taken up my time, is painting those words.”

He said painting these words and other murals has been his way to bring this “intimate and important and maybe even spiritual” messages to locations that would otherwise be “callous and commercialized.”

“There’s so much suffering happening in the world, as always, and I think a lot of it stems from people just not feeling valuable,” Cook said. “This is kind of my contribution to the public conversation about health and well-being, worth and value.”

Lena McCarthy, a 2014 Boston University College of Fine Arts graduate, has painted murals in Boston and beyond. McCarthy painted her first mural in college, when she participated in the Community Service Center’s Alternative Service Breaks and traveled to North Carolina to paint murals in the school.

McCarthy said she started a service-oriented mural club at BU to beautify local schools and parks. After graduating, McCarthy began her career as a street artist in Santiago, Chile, immersing herself in the art of “powerful feminist muralists.”

McCarthy later moved back to Boston, where she continued her career as an artist in Allston, Cambridge, Worcester and elsewhere. She said her paintings often explore the theme of “freedom within femininity” and use images of nature.

“Each piece has its own story,” she said. “But that’s definitely something that runs through a lot of connection to the divine feminine.”

Since the pandemic, McCarthy said she has been focusing more on studio painting, but her mural painting hasn’t stopped.

“There’s a couple of spots that I like to go,” she said. “It didn’t slow me down as much as you might have thought.”

On campus, the 91-foot wide mural displayed in the hallway that’s behind Agganis Arena and between 33 Harry Agganis Way and 10 Buick St. remains a prominent site on campus. CFA junior Jayna Mikolaitis was the lead artist of the collaborative painting.

“Chaotic I feel like is the best word to describe going into a mural, just because every single project is so individual to the space,” she said. “It was very labor-intensive and a lot of long hours, but really fun just because there was a lot of freedom.”

Mikolaitis said she has worked on a number of commissioned and class-related murals, including a current 6-by-12 foot painting across from the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground themed around a cookbook written by Sue Bailey Thurman.

Mikolaitis said the pandemic’s challenges have made creating difficult, especially an “enormous project” like a mural.

“It’s a difficult time, no matter what, for artists right now,” Mikolaitis said. “To create anything is kind of like this massive achievement.”

Despite this, Mikolaitis said she still hopes to continue working on large-scale artistic projects in Boston in the future.

“I love also thinking about how people interact with space and how these works change the space that you’re living in,” she said. “I feel like it would be nice to kind of leave my mark in Boston somewhere.”

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