Returning key mural to heyday: Original artists of iconic ‘History of Women’ mural downtown are making plans for a second restoration

By OLIVIA PETTYand SARA STILLITANO

Published: 02-10-2023 5:27 PM

Editor’s note: This story was reported and written by two students for a Journalism Principles & Practice course at Smith College taught by writer and journalist Naila Moreira.

NORTHAMPTON — On a warm spring day in May 1980, five young artists elevated on spindly towers of scaffolding began the daunting task of capturing nearly 400 years of history in one grand mural. Located on Masonic Street, right across from the Woodstar Cafe and The Parlor Room music venue, “The History of Women in Northampton” spans over 3,000 square feet and looks proudly over the city it depicts.

An iconic symbol, this mural was one of the first large pieces of public art displayed in Northampton before it turned into the bustling hub of art and culture it is today.

The well-known mural has been restored once in its 42-year history, about two decades ago, and the original five female artists are preparing to give it another face-lift this summer.

“I think the town has taken ownership of it, and we’d love to see it restored again,” said Linda Bond, one of the original muralists.

Northampton is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to art compared to surrounding areas in western Massachusetts. Despite being a small city, around nearly every corner and down every alleyway there is some form of street art or graffiti brightening up the dull red-brick buildings. Gallery spaces and art studios are plentiful, and public events such as the annual Chalk Art Festival and Arts Night Out are held on a regular basis, uniting the city and Smith College through means of creation and collaboration.

But Northampton did not always look like this.

“It was kind of a sleepy town. When I moved [to Northampton] in the early ’70s, a lot of the storefronts  were boarded up,” Bond said. “It wasn’t until a migration of artists started moving to Northampton from New York City that the arts scene slowly started to emerge in tangent with the rise of the late 1970s feminist movement.”

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While the “History of Women” mural was not necessarily the only catalyst, the artists say, it was certainly an essential part of this renaissance.

“It was starting to become a very exciting place,” Bond said.

A statement about the role of women

Bond was a founding member of the Hestia Art Collective, a group of women who were responsible for the planning and creation of the mural. They were not commissioned by any specific entity, but rather were committed to creating a collaborative display of public art that would contribute to the cultural identity of the city and make a bold statement about the role of women in Northampton’s rich history.

The collective was also involved in several smaller projects throughout Northampton that contributed to its budding art scene. The mural on Masonic Street was their magnum opus.

“I really think we did the right thing,” said Wednesday Nelena Sorokin, another one of the original artists in Hestia who spearheaded the creation of the mural. “When we did a restoration of the mural about 20 years ago, a lot of people — young people — came up to me and said, ‘I grew up with this mural, and it made a really big difference in my life because I always knew that women could do anything.’”

A testament to their success came in 2003 when artists from the Hestia Collective reunited to restore and update “The History of Women.” Mariah Fee, another one of the muralists, recalled a group of townspeople approaching them during the restoration and asking, “What are you doing to our mural? We don’t want anything to happen to it.”

The community’s love for the mural is undeniable, but it has not been without controversy. The very prospect of an all-female driven project with a female-focused subject caused tension at the time of its creation, and since then the original artists and their supporters have been fighting to keep the spirit of this historic piece of art alive.

Keepers of the eternal flame

Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth and namesake of this all-female art collective, is a lesser-known mythological figure who was the keeper of the eternal flame. At some point in history, Dionysus — the god of wine — replaced Hestia and she faded into obscurity.

“This goddess’s name seemed apt for a group of women artists intent on finding the obscured, lost local women’s history, while making it a public visual narrative,” Fee wrote in email.

“A hard-won unity of vision drove all these projects to successful conclusions. The success was measured by the community’s pride of ownership and identification with the imagery of the final mural.”

Bond said she did not always plan on becoming a muralist.

“I was not very savvy in terms of art,” she said. “I loved it as a child. My favorite things to do were coloring books and paint by numbers and things like that, but I never had any formal training.”

She grew up in New Jersey and went to a small engineering school in Illinois, but it was her friends who ultimately convinced her to pursue an art degree.

“I was a math major… and I was really unhappy,” she recalled.

Luckily, Bond was able to change her path to follow her passion. It was this choice that led her to pursue a master’s degree in art at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

After graduating, Bond worked with other recent graduates to start an art school in Northampton called The City Arts Guild.

“We started in the basement of a Unitarian church — a summer class for kids,” she said.

Despite Northampton lacking much of an art scene at the time, the turnout rate for their classes was surprisingly high. They had access to a pottery and printmaking studio, as well as a gallery space where their art could be displayed and celebrated.

Sorokin was also local to Northampton at the time, as she was studying English and studio art at Smith College. Shortly after she graduated, she was introduced to seasoned artist Rochelle “Shelly” Shicoff, 11 years her senior, who acted as her mentor.

“We quickly became friends and she said to me, ‘Would you like to do a feminist art project?’ and I said yes!” Sorokin said. “We decided a mural would be a really good idea, but we needed more people to do it with.”

The 10 women who eventually formed Hestia met through the regional chapter of Women’s Caucus for Art, which still exists today. Eventually the group shrank down to the five of them, and they set forth on their mission. The City Arts Guild was also crucial in this process because it was registered as a nonprofit, thereby allowing the Hestia Collective to write grants and apply for funding for their project extending beyond community fundraising.

“We came up with the idea that we wanted to represent the history of women in Northampton ... but we wanted the mural to connect with a broad spectrum of people,” Sorokin said.

The witches on the wall

However, the large scale of the mural paired with its female-focused subject left the project open to criticism from different groups. While the majority of the city supported its creation, there were some who made sure to voice their concerns.

Some members of the growing lesbian community, for instance, told the artists that they believed they weren’t doing enough — that the mural needed to be more radical. On the other hand, Bond recalls some older veterans feeling excluded and advocating for men to be on the mural as well.

Shouts of protest and chants such as “Get those witches off the wall!” were thrown at them as they worked.

“We got so accustomed to people coming by and saying, ‘What are you girls doing up there?’” Sorokin said. “And we were thinking of changing the name of the mural jokingly to ‘The History of Girls in Northampton.’”

“Now this is a funny story,” Bond recalled. She explained that during the Renaissance, traditional fresco painters used a reddish-brown underpaint as a neutral base on which to overlay their paintings.

“So we went to the paint store, and we’re trying to find, you know, a little sample that would be about that kind of color. We ordered the paint — gallons of it, I mean, you can imagine — and then we start putting it on. And it is bright pink.”

This phenomenon resulted in a surge of concern from locals who were already hesitant about the mural’s subject matter. They saw the hot pink wall and took it as an overtly political statement about women and the queer community, an attack against the status quo.

“They would kind of march by and protest,” Bond said with a laugh. “It was just funny, because we had those two things going on simultaneously. You can’t please everybody.”

The project took around two years of work to complete, with the actual painting of the mural lasting only four months. First the artists had to split the project into sections and come up with starter sketches, then scale up to wall size. These sketches took over a year to complete.

Then they had to decide on a location. The wall on Masonic Street across from Woodstar was entirely unassuming, owned by a phone company at the time and now operating as a Verizon office building.

“We picked that space because it was a perfect wall, you know. There was nothing in front of it… It was very visible,” Bond said.

They received a green light from the city and went directly to the phone company with their initial sketches. Each artist focused on a different topic. Bond chose to take on the Smith College campus, painting the iconic Grecourt gates and Paradise Pond with watercolor.

With each marked by the individual style of the artists, the sketches were combined into the mural people see today.

As lengthy as the process was, the sketches were the easy part; it was the actual painting of the mural that presented the most challenges to the Hestia Collective.

“It was such physical work, climbing up and down the scaffolding,” Bond said. “A few weeks in, we’re just swinging around like monkeys.”

Despite the opposition they faced from some groups within the community, others faithfully had their back. The Fire Department provided a space for them to keep their equipment, and the State Street Fruit Market supplied them with shopping carts to wheel around their large gallons of paint.

Bart’s Ice Cream — an old soda shop that has since gone out of business — also kept them hydrated throughout the long summer days.

“Every single day we worked on the mural they gave us seltzer water with lemon for free. Every day,” Sorokin said. “And it was just — it was so kind, and so appreciated. I still think very fondly of them.”

Tending the garden

Over the past 20 years since its last restoration, the Northampton landmark has faced the wear and tear of age as well as damage from vandalism. The original artists have been doing their own individual touch-ups on the mural every few years to upkeep its integrity, and on several occasions they have reunited as a group to contribute to its maintenance.

“It’s sort of like tending a garden, you know?” Sorokin said. “Vandalism is going to happen like weeds are going to happen, and you keep it in good shape because it’s something that’s important.”

Despite its traditional methods of creation, the mural has taken on a life and identity of its own fostered by generations of Northampton residents. As a second large-scale restoration nears, the artists will be looking for the same support they received in 2003 to ensure the project runs smoothly. Whether it be a donation of time, money, or seltzer water — they say it’s time for the community to come together to aid this great mural once again.

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