September 25, 2019

Arts Council Mural Project Approved; Completion Planned for November

The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) has approved a proposal for a painted mural on the outer wall of Lupita’s Grocery Store on Leigh Avenue facing John Street, after months of discussion in the Witherspoon-Jackson (W-J) neighborhood and beyond.

Proposed and sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP), the mural will be painted by Marlon Davila, an artist who grew up in the W-J community, and is designed “to reflect the history and diversity in the neighborhood,” according to ACP Interim Executive Director Jim Levine.

Preliminary work on the mural, which includes the North Star and the Big Dipper constellation and depicts the annual migratory route of the monarch butterfly, has already begun. Work on the site is expected to begin in October with completion and a “reveal party” anticipated for late November, Levine said. The project was developed in partnership with the Princeton Young Achievers students at the Henry Pannell Center.

The ACP presented its proposal to the town’s Public Art Selection Committee (PASC) and the HPC last spring. It was approved by the PASC (an advisory body), but the HPC, whose approval was required because of W-J’s designation as a historic district, asked for additional discussion and input from the community.

Public and private discussion ensued with a meeting at the ACP in June, followed by two forums sponsored by the W-J Neighborhood Association at the First Baptist Church in Princeton on July 27 and September 14. Participants expressed widespread support for public art in the W-J District and elsewhere, but there were some concerns over the lack of local residents’ involvement in the process and, as Levine said, “questions about whether it’s the right art at the right time in the right place.”

Maria Evans, ACP artistic director, project director for the mural, and Leigh Avenue resident, noted in late July that ”maybe the process got a bit backward, but I feel that we’re on the right track now with bringing everybody into the same room and talking about it.”

WJNA Chairman Leighton Newlin [see his letter in this week’s Mailbox] emphasized the importance of community involvement from the start and in all phases of the process.

Noting that most of the people who were opposed to the mural felt that the first application for public art in the W-J District should represent the African American experience, which was the basis for the historic designation, Newlin urged “gracious” and “unselfish” recognition of the pride of “other people regarding their history, their heritage, and their culture.”

He emphasized the significance of the African American history in the W-J District. “Our legacy is unshakeable, it is fixed and anchored and our story will continue to be told,” he wrote.

Princeton Councilwoman Leticia Fraga, a member of the PASC, commented on the mural project. “What we have learned from the recent process is the importance of community involvement in creating public art,” she said. “Cultural art displayed in community spaces can have the benefit of building a sense of space, is welcoming, and allows those who connect with it to feel at home. I applaud members of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood for working together to build a welcoming community.”