Community means different things to different people. A community could describe a geographical area where people live; it could define a grouping of those with common interests. Or the word community might take on a broader scope, encompassing not only shared space and the enjoyment of similar activities, but an extension beyond boundaries and expectations to create something much more significant than the sum of its parts.
That is definitely the case with the Freehold Borough Arts Council. The group, which formed in November 2010, was the brain child of Borough Councilman John Newman. “He saw a need for an organization that would champion the cultural arts in the borough,” says FBAC President Neal Girandola. “The arts council appealed to me personally because I saw it as an opportunity to use art and culture as an educational tool for everyone,” Girandola continues. “This is what builds community.”
Early in 2011, the FBAC came up with the idea to create an outdoor mural that would represent the area’s history and also be an attractive addition to the town. ““It was our grandest endeavor,” Girandola comments, “and very ambitious for the group’s first year.”
Girandola told me that the mural park project was inspired by Freehold Borough High School art students, who for years had been decorating the windows of businesses in town with painted Halloween scenes. “We basically decided to take it to the next level,” he said.
The arts council got permission from the property owner to use the side of the building. Then they hosted an essay contest to identify a vision for the mural, and, with input from the students, selected a winning essay. Once the vision was established, the arts council invited interested artists to demonstrate how they would implement the vision. Matt Halm, an Allentown, Pennsylvania artist, was chosen to lead the work.
Brian Sullivan, the arts council vice president, said that the community responded very favorably to the project, and one primary reason for their positive reaction was the proposed location for the installation of the mural.
“The site is on our main street, in a high profile spot,” Sullivan explains. The building was once a service station, but had been empty for the past ten years and had become quite run down. The plan to rejuvenate the spot with the new mural was popular with the local residents. “There was a real sense of pride about this happening,” Sullivan says. “People loved watching the daily progress.”
For the actual painting, the arts council invited the whole town to take part and, as Sullivan says, “our very diverse community came through.” The group worked closely with the high school art students, and also enlisted the help of groups like the Girl Scouts and YMCA. “We organized community paint days,” Sullivan reports, “that brought out a large number of families and individuals. Everybody pitched in.”
“I felt like this project is a great success,” artist Matt Halm said, “not only because of its beauty but also because it helped to promote pride in the arts and in the community.”
Now that community – of council members and supporters, students and artists, children and parents, business owners and residents – is struggling to understand why the owner of the building where the artwork was installed decided, without notice or warning, to paint over several of the mural panels.
When he found out about the defacing of the mural panels, artist Matt Halm was angry. “To have so many months of hard work destroyed in such a short time is a hard thing to fathom. I just hope that some good comes of it.”
Not surprisingly, however, people are already coming together again to put the past behind them and look forward. Two weeks ago, a police officer recovered and preserved several panels of the mural. The chronicle of the mural’s destruction, and the human stories surrounding it, cascaded through local press.
Just last week, a popular local band, Mission Dance, turned the concert they had scheduled at The American Hotel on Main Street into a benefit called “Rally for the Arts Council” and donated a portion of the proceeds from the show to the FBAC. According to NJ arts advocate, FBAC member and Freehold native Jean Holtz, the turnout at the rally was remarkable. “We had nearly 250 people there, on just a week’s notice,” she said.
And the next step relating to the mural project, says Neal Girandola, is a partnership and month-long gallery event with the Arc of Monmouth, a non-profit organization that serves hundreds of individuals with disabilities through training, education, health care and other services.
The event opens on January 26 and continues through February 23 at the Red Horse Gallery in Freehold Raceway Mall in Freehold. The collaboration – aptly named “The Art of Community” – will feature the salvaged panels that remain from the project, as well as a visual history of select images that chronicle the creation and destruction of the 18 foot by 160 foot mural. This special event will also display artwork by some of the high school students who worked with the FBAC on the mural project.
Despite the shock and sadness over the destruction of the artwork, many of those involved are still able to cite the positive aspects of the situation.
For Neal Girandola, many of the project goals were realized. “I feel proud knowing that we accomplished what we set out to do – to educate through the arts,” he says.
Based on his experience with the project, Brian Sullivan remains upbeat and hopeful. “We set out with a plan to create this mural – and we did it,” he says. “And the support from the community has been incredible all along. We’re already getting suggestions for future murals.”
Jean Holtz sees a silver lining in all of this. “If the mural hadn’t been destroyed, we might not have truly understood the impact it had on us as a community“, she said. “We don’t have a completed mural, but we have gained so much more.”
And while Matt Halm is still shaken by what happened, he also sees the positive “I’m disappointed that the whole piece wasn’t able to have a longer lasting impression, but I’m grateful to the people of Freehold and the FBAC for the opportunity to transform a neglected space and maybe change a few skeptical minds,” Halm said.
“A community project like this is a powerful tool for progression and creativity. Hard work and imagination together can change the world.”