Reclaiming history: Former Belchertown State School residents reflect on experience through mural project

View Photo Gallery
  • Warrenton Williams, right, 81, of Chicopee, a former resident at the Belchertown State School, works with facilitating artist Chelvanaya Gabriel on ideas for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. Photographed on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, at the fourth of several weekly meetings in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser, left, 68, of Amherst, a former resident at the Belchertown State School, works with Olive Smith of the Belchertown Justice Collaborative on ideas for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. At the first of the weekly meetings May 19, six former residents worked on expressing, in words or images, their concepts of belonging and having their voices heard. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Facilitating artist Chelvanaya Gabriel, top right, artist and former Belchertown State School resident James Blackmore, lower right, and Kissy Mathewson, left, the mother of grant writer Tess Mathewson, look over images of former BSS resident Warrenton Williams, including one of him tending a horse at the school. The photos are possible elements for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. Photographed on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Artist and former Belchertown State School resident James Blackmore, right, of Templeton, tries his hand at illustrating on a tablet brought by facilitating artist Chelvanaya Gabriel, left, during a June 23 meeting to discuss ideas for a mural, which Blackmore will paint, to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Artist and former Belchertown State School resident James Blackmore, left, of Templeton, tries his hand at illustrating on a tablet brought by facilitating artist Chelvanaya Gabriel, right, during a weekly meeting to discuss ideas for a mural, which Blackmore will paint, to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. Photographed on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Richard Dresser of Amherst, a former resident at the Belchertown State School, attends a meeting with other former residents to contribute ideas for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. Photographed on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Warrenton Williams, right, 81, of Chicopee, a former resident at the Belchertown State School, works with facilitating artist Chelvanaya Gabriel on ideas for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. Photographed on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, at the fourth of several weekly meetings in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Facilitating artist Chelvanaya Gabriel, left, conducts a weekly meeting with artist and former Belchertown State School resident James Blackmore, right, and other former residents who are working on ideas for a mural, which Blackmore will paint, to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. Photographed on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Ricci, 74, of Amherst, a former resident at the Belchertown State School, works with Julie Gerstman on ideas for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August during the first of several weekly meetings at a home in Belchertown on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. At the meeting the six former residents worked on expressing, in words or images, their concepts of belonging and having their voices heard. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Ricci, 74, of Amherst, a former resident at the Belchertown State School, uses drawing to express his concepts of belonging and having his voice heard during the first of several weekly meetings of former residents who are contributing ideas for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school. Photographed on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Myles Tosk of Lee, on screen via Zoom, a former resident of the Belchertown State School, works with Kissy Mathewson of Belchertown to contribute ideas for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. At the first of the weekly meetings the six former residents worked on expressing, in words or images, their concepts of belonging and having their voices heard. Mathewson is the mother of Tess Mathewson, a grant writer from the Belchertown Justice Collaborative. Photographed on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Ricci, 74, of Amherst, a former resident at the Belchertown State School, takes part in the second of several weekly meetings to express ideas for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school in August. Photographed on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Ricci, right, 74, of Amherst, a former resident at the Belchertown State School, talks with Ezzell Floranina of Shutesbury during a meeting in Belchertown, June 2, to express ideas for a mural to be installed on the grounds of the former school. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 7/5/2021 7:00:08 PM

A group of former residents at Belchertown State School has teamed up to reclaim a piece of troubling and personal history through an art project at the site of the former institution.

Earlier this year, the six former residents began planning a mural to be installed on the land around the remains of the former school. The Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded was established in 1922 as an institution for children with intellectual disabilities and became the site of serious human rights violations. It was closed down 70 years later in 1992 after public criticism and a series of lawsuits that began in 1972.

As the grounds continue to be redeveloped, former residents have found a way to publicly address its painful history.

“You know, the history of the Belchertown State School, that’s what I think of when I think of a problematic space,” said Tess Mathewson, a grant writer from the Belchertown Justice Collaborative, who helped come up with the idea. “We’ve never addressed it, it’s on town property, and it’s being redone and we’ve never talked about anything.”

The art installation will consist of six paintings on free-standing wooden frames. Each piece will be individualized to one of the six former residents and panelists working on the project. Each panelist worked to decide on a design that they thought was meaningful to them. All the designs will be painted by artist James Blackmore, who is on the panel and will have a painting specific to himself, as well.

“I want to paint people,” Blackmore said during an interview with three of the panelists last Wednesday.

Richard Dresser, a panelist and former resident, says he wants his piece of the mural to depict himself standing with a person in a wheelchair, to represent the disabled people that he’s worked with during his time in the institution and in his adult life.

Russel Daniel, a member of the panel and former resident, wants his painting to be of himself in the school’s kitchen because that was a significant location for him. “I used to work in the kitchen,” he said.

Dresser is hoping that the mural will bring awareness to the site’s history.

“I always tell people, ‘hey, we need to put this out to the public and let people know what it was like and the things that really happened,’” he said.

The project is financed by a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts, called the “Public Art for Spatial Justice” grant.

“The grant wanted to assist artists of color in reclaiming some very problematic space, historically,” Mathewson, of the Belchertown Justice Collaborative, said.

Cory Brown is a caseworker at Almadan Inc., an agency that offers support to individuals with mental or physical disabilities. He had several other clients who had been residents at the institution and wanted to participate in planning the mural.

“Having their voice able to be heard and knowing that this is going to be at the state school is important,” Brown said. “Maybe, one day, some of the clientele who aren’t able to speak up will be able just to go to this mural and just kind of see, like, ok we do have some people who are able to speak about this for the community to know what went on.”

The mural is just one part of a project called Reflections: Public Art Honoring Lives Lived at Belchertown State School, which will feature several different types of art from the former residents, including a play, sculpture installations and a book trail, featuring stories about the life in the institution.

Massachusetts Cultural Council and Belchertown Cultural Council are both helping fund the initiative and it’s organized through the Belchertown Community Alliance.

The project comes as the site of the state school is being renovated by MassDevelopment. So far, the area has a new assisted living facility called Christopher Heights and an early childhood education center called Belchertown Day School, which opened its doors in September 2020.

The official showcase is planned for Aug. 14, but the art will remain up until Sep. 14. The art installations are expected to be visible from Carriage Drive, Berkshire Avenue, and Front Street.

Sarah Maroney, the board grant manager at the Belchertown Community Alliance, hopes that the Reflections project will help bring positive change to the space.

“It will promote welcoming people back into the area and show them what it has to offer,” she said.




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy