If you happened to be driving down Essex Street in Lawrence last summer, you might have spotted a group of high school students painting a mural depicting giant strawberries, green plantains, quenepas and a woman’s face lighting up with a broad smile. A few buckets of paint, a heap of artistic talent, and a lot of sweat turned this blighted brick wall into a bright image of hope. Six such colorful murals now grace Lawrence’s streets, thanks to the Summer Mural Program run by the Essex Art Center (EAC) in conjunction with ValleyWorks Career Center. Last summer’s mural honored Julia Polanco and her five Food for the World pantries (located in Lawrence and Salem, Mass.) that feed more than 11,000 people each week.
“Art is the way to bring different groups of people together,” says John Budzyna, executive director of the EAC. “Art is the great equalizer — something everyone can talk about.” Based on the mural program’s success, he’s hopeful two more can be created this summer.
Essex Art Center started in 1993, when three Bradford College classmates — Helen Tory, Linda Maddox and Leslie Costello — opened a nonprofit art studio that offered classes in downtown Lawrence. Their devotion and tireless work caught the eye of mill owner Chet Sidell, who invited them to move to 56 Island St. With 10,000 square feet of space, they were able to expand their classes, add galleries with rotating exhibits and host events, such as the annual Oktoberfest beer tasting, and art parties for adults and children.
Today, Essex Art Center offers classes for all ages, in just about every medium. Reasonably priced, the classes draw students from as far as Boston. While studio painting and drawing are among the favorites, classes include wheel-thrown pottery, lost-wax casting for jewelry, fashion illustration, digital photography, drawing for animation and more.
“Essex Art Center has always been viewed as a place where a lot of people come together around art, whether they’re working on ceramics or taking a class or earning a Girl Scout badge,” says Cathy McLaurin, special projects and Elizabeth A. Beland gallery director. “When people come here, they may be sitting next to people from Andover, Methuen or even Boston. People always say when they come to Essex Art Center, ‘I meet so many different people.’ ”
“We’re constantly reaching out,” adds Budzyna, who introduced an all-day Short Film Festival in Lawrence’s Ferrous Park last August. Free short films about Lawrence, created by 14 local filmmakers, were shown throughout the day (many can still be viewed on EAC’s website, essexartcenter.org). Budzyna worked with Movimiento Pro Cultura’s Jazz Festival and The Common Sage’s Lawrence Day of Writing to launch a multipronged cultural festival.
Budzyna has a knack for drawing people together. He noticed over the years that Island Street Studios, Oh Studios and Studio 56 (each housing a number of artists) had popped up around the EAC. Then Blochaus, a new contemporary gallery run by artist Markus Sebastiano, opened a few blocks away late last year. This prompted Budzyna to think that an arts crawl could be created if they all worked together. Now when EAC opens its galleries, the studios and Blochaus are encouraged to open, too. The Arts Crawl website (artscrawl.net) provides the details. In warm weather, food trucks, strolling people and live music make this feel like a festival.
“People come [to the Arts Crawl] and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there was anything like this happening in Lawrence,’” says McLaurin, who is working with Budzyna to turn the area into a Massachusetts Cultural Council cultural district.
This spring, EAC will offer a series of programs and classes that will complement “Frank Stella Prints,” an exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art on view from April 22 to July 30. Essex Art Center will host children and adult printmaking workshops and classes, in addition to leading field trips to the Stella exhibit.
Simultaneously, both EAC galleries will show handmade prints. In the Beland Gallery, Bradford’s Marc Mannheimer will exhibit woodcuts created with a new process that uses laser etching in combination with hand-carving to make wooden printing plates. The artist will deliver a talk on May 12 at 5 p.m. The Sidell Gallery will show prints by Helen Tory, Mary Arthur Pollak and Sissy Buck. Both exhibits run May 5 to June 16.
Though Lawrence is often noted as being one of the economically poorest cities in Massachusetts, it offers a bounty when it comes to culture. “That’s the thing,” McLaurin says. “People hear the bad news. They don’t always get the good news.”
EAC works at spreading the good news, though its main mission is to provide a safe, quiet place where people can reflect on art. “It’s important to find time in life to be creative,” Budzyna says. “We need more creativity in the world that’s open to expression without judgment.”
Essex Arts Center