Friday, October 18, 2013

Los Angeles Artist Brings Murals to Newtown Trying to Heal After Sandy Hook

Artist Nichole Blackburn high fives a  young girl at the Newtown Youth Academy where she has painting murals for three weeks.

Los Angeles Artist Brings Vivid Colors, Joy and Strength To A Connecticut Town As It Works Toward Recovery After Sandy Hook

    "In a town that has a dark cloud hanging over it, it is so uplifting to walk into a facility full of color. Slowly we are adding the color back into our lives and this lasting piece of art is in a place that has opened its arms to this community is so very fitting. Children should not see things in black and white. They should see things in color." --  Newtown parent Caren Wellman

By Diana L. Chapman

  For nearly three weeks, international muralist  Nichole Blackburn has worked at a feverish pace to transform the facility found in the heart of the town wounded last December where 26 people were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT.
   The facility, Newtown Youth Academy (NYA) Sports and Fitness Center, served as a media free zone and the second home, at the time, for those coping with the tragedy. Now the Sports Facility's officials are hoping the artist's colorful work -- which included four walls, and is about 100 feet long combined, will bring happiness and smiles to its resident's faces. The paintings reflect the life of Newtown -- depicting all ages from toddlers to seniors, the very customers  the 90,000 square foot the non-profit serves.
  The artist's desire to fill the center with light and brightness has been her primary goal since arriving in early October. The unveiling today came about because Blackburn, who lives in Redondo Beach, CA, worked16 hour days on the paintings to reflect Newtown's daily lives.
   It was the first time in her philanthropic heart and history to allow her non-profit, Big Sky Countries, to let someone else dictate and come up with the design. It seemed fitting because the community, she said, has lost so much. She also asked the center's officials not to tell her which users had lost someone so she didn't treat anyone overly "special in order to facilitate moving forward."
  "There wasn't a soul who came through the NYA's doors who hadn't lost someone or been deeply affected by the Sandy Hook tragedy," Nichole said trying not to break into tears during a phone interview. "This community is so strong. It's truly inspirational. I wanted to be as strong as I could. People were hugging me on a daily basis with tears in their eyes. What I saw is that this community has been doing everything they can to move forward. Newtown is truly choosing love."
   Nearly every day, the center's visitors, many of whom express happiness with the work, are more surprised to learn Nichole has donated all of it.  She has received warm greetings, invitations for dinner, lunches and parties, all actions that make her more humble.
   A mother, Denise Sullivan, said she was grateful. "The uplifting and is an incredible gift to the NYA! We are so grateful for it!"
   NYA Communications Manager and Newtown resident, Alisa Farley, wasn't surprised by the town's reaction to Nichole's murals, which have received nothing but praise.  Nichole's obvious talent and likeability made her fit right in, especially after she splashed vivid colors in tones of oranges, reds, blues and greens capturing the town's vibrancy on the facility's walls with inspirational words such as "effort," "practice" and "perseverance" and "vision."
  "She has done a spectacular and especially classy job in capturing the spirit of our town," Alisa said, adding that the residents are extremely sensitive having been inundated with hordes of media and an overload of donations which has often made it difficult for those directly affected by the shooting to be alone and have quiet with time for personal reflection. 
High school girls help on the murals.
   After the  incident, Alisa said, she was hired by the NYA founder to manage the facility's communications and marketing. The Newtown mother of three, having watched the facility as a parent during the crises become the "hub" and core of the community, believed the center could bring even more light to the town by turning its giant and "sterile" lobby walls into a spirited world of art showing off athletes of all types and other activities.  The murals, she hoped, would bring back a sense of happiness. She also deeply understood the center's importance after it served residents free of charge during Sandy Hook and the disaster left behind from Hurricane Sandy. 
  Nichole aided the facility in converting two 25 foot long wall into white boards in the conference room using specialized paint. The other remaining walls detail those in action from soccer to tennis. 
  The two were teamed up after NYA consultant, Terry Sagedy, who worked with the artist on another mural in Atlanta, recommended her. It was the perfect match because not only did Nichole come with an open heart, she brought in large donations for gallons of paint, brushes and other supplies and a willingness to flex with center official's requests.
   Her scenes reveal those who use the facility for basketball, soccer, tennis, lacrosse, weight lifting, nutrition planning, fitness classes and the many community events. The center became the soul of the town during the Sandy Hook tragedy because it opened its doors offering people a safe haven, a place to sleep, eat and stay clear of the media. It also hosted the myriad of professional athletes who came to aid the town in healing -- and many perhaps to heal themselves.
  The direction to make the lobby brighter started after the center's founder, Peter D'Amico, a 33 year resident of Newton and a soccer coach for 30 years, asked Alisa to join the team in March as the communications director. Initially, she said, the founder's dream was to build a soccer academy, similar to those found in Europe. However, after working with the town nearing a population of 30,000, it became clear the residents of the surrounding areas would benefit  more from a full service sports and recreational center for all ages.
   The founder then opened the facility on November 1, 2008. Unbeknownst to D'Amico, his dream center would become the town's heart beat during times of tragedy. That's one reason why center officials having nothing but enthusiasm for the paintings. It brings a sense of light.
  "What a gift it is to have (Nichole) find her way into our community," said Cody Floss, a co-director of the facility. "Rarely does someone have the ability to sit back and experience an artist work right in front you from the comfort of your office. This remarkably unique experience has afforded me, literally a window, in which to observe the tireless effort, motivation and amazing skill that Nichole has."
   Said another co-director, Dorrie Carolan: "We are honored that someone of Nichole's caliber chose to come to Newton to paint in the NYA. Her personality is incredible, and we are humbled that she dedicated her talents to us."
  For Nichole, it was a slam dunk for her non-profit.
  "When people would ask me why I donated such a big mural, spending three weeks in Newtown, living with one of the local families, I would simply say: 'Because the NYA has done so much for the community. They deserve someone to give something back to them. I did not need to come and say anything directly about my mural donations having to do the tragedy at Sandy Hook and the NYA's support in those difficult times. Everyone I spoke too could read between the lines."
  She was also able to bring in donations for the project. Modello Designs provided $2,000 worth of stencils, letter and logo designs. Purdy Brushes donated prep materials, rollers and paint brushes that would have cost $1,500. Sherwin Williams provided $1,000 in paint and Magna Construction approximately $2000 in paint preparation services.
  While the artist typically works with children with other organizations, the center wanted to limit the numbers to protect them from the media. Instead, the center picked specific children, including high school art students and children from the organization's R.E.A.C.H program. While they did allow some photos with children, it was tightly controlled and done my the artist or staff.
  "We decided unanimously not to have the children be...subject to media of any kind," the artist said. "We wanted the kids to quite simply just be kids and have fun painting."
  What attracted Alisa to Nichole's work, the marketing director said, was the energy, transformation and inspiration she could bring to the center's cold-looking 25 to 30 foot wide walls, standing twelve to fourteen feet tall. As a Newtown mother, Alisa had witnessed firsthand the dark days of Sandy Hook. With three children ages 10 to 15, Alisa said she was home when she received a call announcing that there had been shootings at Newton High School, where her daughter Dori attends. The campus was on lockdown.
    On pins and needles texting her daughter numerous times, Alisa received no response. Eventually, she learned the shootings were at Sandy Hook and her daughter texted her saying she was safe.
    "I will never forget this time as long as I live," Alisa said. "I am talking from my heart."  She watched as the dim, gloomy days ahead unfolded. With a theater arts background, Alisa believed murals would be the perfect way to bring the effectiveness of art into a traditionally sports oriented facility -- adding a bit of art therapy.
  "The real goal is to make residents feel happy," she said. "It's color and it's life."