Youths plant mural of diversity and empowerment on bike trail in Northampton

  • Artists, community organizers and youths come together Saturday to put finishing touches on a mural underneath the I-91 overpass along the bike trail in Northampton. At top are Meshach Stevenson of Springfield and Mimi Ditkoff, YEA collective organizer; at bottom are Isis Badone, an organizer from Amherst, Victoria Mancheno, founder of the Invincible Project from Springfield, and Mars “Mari” Champagne, an artist and organizer from Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/SABATO VISCONTI

  • Youth Empowerment Arts Collective organizer Mimi Ditkoff works on a new mural Saturday beneath the Interstate 91 overpass in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/SABATO VISCONTI

  • YEA Collective organizer and Hadley artist Mari Champagne designed the original sketch for the new mural being completed Saturday beneath the I-91 overpass on the bike trail in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/SABATO VISCONTI

  • Young people join forces with the YEA Collective to paint a mural Saturday beneath the I-91 overpass along the bike trail in Northampton. From left are Mimi Ditkoff, organizer from Hadley; center, Taylor Holmes; Jordan Holmes, Tionne Summers and Naiya Tores of Springfield; and Isis Badone, an organizer from Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/SABATO VISCONTI

  • The Youth Empowerment Arts Collective teamed up with the Invincible Project and the Boys & Girls Club Family Center in Springfield to paint a new mural Saturday beneath the I-91 overpass along the bike trail in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/SABATO VISCONTI

Staff Writer
Published: 10/24/2020 6:25:09 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Over the sounds of cars roaring by and hip-hop music Saturday morning, a small group of young people put the finishing touches on a Black Lives Matter mural that organizers say symbolizes youth empowerment, issues of social justice and diversity.

The mural, which is painted on the slope of the I-91 South overpass on the Nortwottuck Rail Trail near Damon Road, is the project of a newly formed group called the Youth Empowerment Arts Collective (YEA). The group partnered with The Invincible Project in Springfield, a nonprofit that mentors disadvantaged BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) youth, to have the young people help paint the mural.

“We decided that through mural-making, and through public art, we can talk about really controversial and important messages,” said Emilia “Mimi” Ditkoff, 23, of Hadley, who had the initial idea to start YEA. “We wanted to create a symbol of solidarity, a symbol of support and a symbol just to represent the diversity that is behind the scenes in Northampton.”

Ditkoff said the idea for the mural began in May as a direct response to galvanizing incidents of police brutality around the country, and that YEA was formed in June. She said the grassroots collective is focused on “youth empowerment and social justice education through the arts.” All BIPOC people involved in the project, including the youths, were paid for their work, she said, while the white people on the project worked as volunteers. Ditkoff called the art “a Black Lives Matter mural.”

This mural is the first of many that YEA is hoping to paint in the area, Ditkoff said. To her, the mural “focuses on youth empowerment and diversity as a way to empower the BIPOC community and empower youth in western Massachusetts and around the world.” She said the mural intentionally does not have literal political messages and that it can be used to start conversations about social issues in the community.

“The message behind it is more about empowering communities, not about being divisive or going against any other beliefs,” Ditkoff said. “It’s really just about empowering these young kids, empowering the BIPOC community, showing solidarity and having kids walk past this and say, ‘This looks like me.’”

Mars “Mari” Champagne, 24, of Hadley is the artist behind the mural. The painting “is represented as a brown-skinned person,” Champagne said, but it is meant to appear fluid and “inclusive of people from all walks of life.” 

“I really wanted to, first of all, have a vision of harmony and inclusion, but also have a vision that included the realities of injustices that exist in the world and the ways we can show up and recreate harmony as a vision to fuel our future,” Champagne said.

The top of the mural, around the person’s hair, features buds “attached to the root system inside of the hair” that are representative of the youth who are “literally budding, and growing and flowering into the adults that will be the leaders of our country,” Champagne said. On the center of the forehead is the African symbol for harmony, they said, with the pride and trans flag colors below that.

Champagne said the painted figure will also be shedding a tear into a basket, “to show all of the tears that we have, and will shed, because of all of the injustices.”

“It’s about unity, it’s about truth, and it’s about acceptance and beauty,” Champagne said.

One of the young people at the overpass on Saturday, 14-year-old Naiya Torres of Springfield, was having fun painting the mural and said she saw it as an opportunity to do something for the community.

“It has different meanings to it,” Torres said about the artwork. 

Tionne Summers of Springfield, also 14, said she thought the mural was a good way to start conversations around worldwide issues of social justice, such as LGBTQ rights.

“To me, it says everything that’s happening in the world in one picture,” she said.

An official unveiling of the final mural was scheduled for 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.  


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