November 6, 2019

Leigh Avenue Mural Nears Completion, Dedication Scheduled for November 9

“JOURNEY”: Artist Marlon Davila, who grew up in the Witherspooon-Jackson neighborhood, is putting the finishing touches on his mural titled “Journey” on the outer wall of Lupita’s Groceries on Leigh Avenue and John Street. The Arts Council of Princeton is inviting the community to a reveal party and formal dedication at 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 9. (Photo courtesy of Arts Council of Princeton)

By Donald Gilpin

A bright blue sky, a large tree with green leaves, the Big Dipper with the North Star in the top left corner, and butterflies of all sizes adorn what used to be a yellow expanse of wall outside Lupita’s Groceries on Leigh Avenue and John Street.

Marlon Davila has almost finished his mural titled Journey, and The Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) has invited the public to attend a reveal party on Saturday, November 9 at 10 a.m., with light refreshments and a formal dedication by Mayor Liz Lempert.

“It is a dream come true,” said Davila, who grew up in the Witherspoon-Jackson (W-J) neighborhood. “I remember being a kid who loved coloring books and drawing. Years later I still have that same passion for art, and I am creating a mural on this beautiful wall in my hometown on the exact street where I lived for many years.”

Davila, the ACP’s Fall 2019 Anne Reeves Artist-in-Residence, is a first generation Guatemalan who studied fashion at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and continued his education in fine arts and painting at Mercer County Community College, from which he graduated with honors. He recently completed the Artists Teaching Art program at the ACP and now teaches art for children at the ACP’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts.

“It’s incredibly meaningful for me to give back to my community,” Davila said, “and I am truly grateful to the Arts Council of Princeton and its supporters for believing in me and for giving me this unique opportunity.”

Timothy M. Andrews, who has underwritten the Anne Reeves Artist-in-Residence program for the next three years, is a major supporter of the project, along with mural sponsors Kucker Haney Paint Co., Studio Hillier, Jerry’s Artarama, and Smith’s Ace Hardware Princeton.

The Artist-in-Residence program will enable two artists every year to produce a work of art, and, according to Andrews, “At least three of the six will be conceived for a specific public space and created after we gain neighborhood approvals and raise additional funds to pay for the preparation, supplies, and installation.”

Throughout its planning stages, Davila’s mural project sparked considerable discussion on the uses and purposes of public art, both within the W-J District and in the larger community.

The ACP first presented its proposal to the Princeton Public Art Selection Committee (PASC) and the Historic Preservation Commission (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.

A neighborhood meeting at the ACP in June was followed by two forums, well attended with wide participation, sponsored by the W-J Neighborhood Association at the First Baptist Church of Princeton in July and September.

“What we have learned from the recent process is the importance of community involvement in creating public art,” said Princeton Councilwoman Leticia Fraga after the HPC granted its approval for the project in September. “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.”

Davila has been working on site during the past month and has interacted with a number of local residents. “The reaction has been beyond positive,” he said. “The kids love it. They walk by and everyone says thank you. They’re very happy. It’s an amazing feeling just to know that the neighborhood is so supportive about this project. Kids who live around the corner come by and watch me paint.”

He continued, “I don’t live here anymore, but my mother does, and it makes me want to come back to live in Princeton.” Davila’s main goal for his art is to open people’s eyes to other perspectives on life and the world, he said. His artwork is influenced by nature, romanticism, surrealism, and the use of symbols to represent an idea.

Lupita’s Groceries owner Norma Garcia echoed many other positive responses to the mural and pointed out one particular symbol, the butterflies. “I’m so happy about the mural for the community and for everybody to see,” she said, with some help from her son in translating. “It’s beautiful. I love the monarch butterflies. They can go anywhere. They migrate from Mexico, where my family came from.”