Dragon’s tale

Last modified: Sunday, January 10, 2016
The dragon-slash-snake that’s painted on the abutment under the South Street bridge has cheered me on many a walk along the bike path.It has been there about a year, designed with small circular “windows” in which, over time, artists have painted designs, symbols and pictures.Ultimately, along the top, small circles contained letters that spelled out “community” and “harmony.”Every time I passed by, I wondered who had come up with the idea and who had executed it in such an appealing fashion.Not everyone was thrilled. In the early stages of the work, one graffitist objected to the obscuring of older graffiti: “Years of art covered. My art is arrogant,” the posting read. But since the completion of the piece (or what I thought was its completion), no one has seemed to want to tag over it.Given my interest, I was happy on Saturday to find a young woman painting a tail around the blank end of the abutment. As on the rest of this mythical beast, the artist was leaving empty circles to be filled in.Sophie Schultze-Allen was eager to talk about her involvement in what she sees as a community art project. She took my number and called that evening to fill in the details.Schultze-Allen, 20, is in her final year at Hampshire College, which asks its students to prepare a number of projects over the course of their academic career. During her second and third years, her “Div II” work for Hampshire required, among other efforts, a “community-engaged learning” or community service component. An artist who had painted public murals before, she wanted involvement with the community as part of her artwork.A Hampshire alumnus and Northampton resident, Felix Lufkin, provided the opportunity she needed, Schultze-Allen said.Lufkin is involved in a permaculture effort called Help Yourself to put edible plants in public spaces: nut trees, fruit trees, raised beds of vegetables, and the like. Some are planted along bike paths.Schultze-Allen worked for that project as a student volunteer in a nursery to get “plant credits”—plants the group could place in public spaces. When she told Lufkin about her wish to incorporate art into her Div. II work, he told her about the wall space under the South Street Bridge. He helped her get a city permit, she did the design, and people—mostly students at local colleges—started coming by to help.Lufkin did a funding campaign to get money for paint. People suggested what they wanted to see in the circles—“bubbles”, as Schultze-Allen terms them—an owl, a cardinal, the Hindu elephant-headed deity, flowers, a peace sign, and many more—and gradually the piece came together.“It was interesting how people interacted with the piece,” Schultze-Allen said.Originally, the mural was not conceived as a creature, just a wall of bright color with small round spaces waiting to be filled. When the whole area had been primed, with empty bubbles, someone came along and painted a whimsical head at one end, creating a snakelike appearance. Schultze-Allen loved that; she said she later found out the artist had been a Smith College student who has since graduated.She noted the negative comment about covering up graffiti art as “an obvious political statement,” and at first didn’t want to cover up that statement. Ethically, she felt that though the comment seemed “disrespectful,” it’s also part of graffiti culture not to paint over a tag.Eventually, she said, she decided that “street art is ever-changing; accept that and even invite it.”All in all, she said she thinks the mural has had a positive effect. “I have heard a lot of people making good comments,” Schultze-Allen said, “about (the mural) brightening their day, making the area seem safer.”Next time you’re on the bike path, pause for a look.