Cementing kindness: Teen center mural creates sense of community pride, permanence (SLIDESHOW)

For generations to come, The Kindness Mural outside Ridgefield’s teen center, The Barn, will tell a story of collaboration and endurance — a piece of art created by a thousand different hands to stand the test of time.
The abstract mosaic, with its tens of thousands of red, yellow, and orange porcelain tiles, will also serve as a visual reminder of inclusivity and caringness for residents and visitors who walk by it.
“It’s rare for people in a community to have an opportunity to come together and create something like this piece,” said mural artist Joanne Hunter, who co-created the design with her husband, Bruce.
“When you make collaborative art, it’s one of the purest acts of kindness you can make, because you’re creating new, stronger bonds with people that weren’t there before,” she added. “It emotionally touches everyone when they realize their individual effort on this will stand the test of time.”
Last week, hundreds of volunteers — community groups, businesses, art classes, sports teams, public officials — worked on the six-panel mural that will be installed on the center’s outer wall this spring.
The age of participants has ranged from kindergartners to grandparents.
“We had a 90-year-old grandfather come in and work on it yesterday,” said Joanne Monday, March 5, after guiding a group of fourth graders from Veterans Park Elementary School.
She hoped some of the mural’s youngest participants will revisit their work when they’re older.
“I was telling the group of kids that was just in here that they can come back one day and tell their grandkids, ‘I made this,’” Joanne said.
“They really responded to that message,” she added, “and that’s because there’s a tremendous sense of pride in the people who are creating this piece.”
Year in the making
Denise Qualey, the chairwoman of the Ridgefield Youth Commission, began discussing the project with the Hunters a year ago.
Joanne said the process of making a mural like this one takes a while.
“You have to figure out the right setting, the colors, the rhythm, and, of course, all the different funding pieces,” the artist said.
“You also have to figure out how to get people to participate,” said Qualey, who’s been organizing the volunteer process that started Sunday, March 4, and will run through Saturday, March 10.
The school kids ventured into the Teen Center for hour-long sessions last week, while other community groups spent two hours — or even longer — working on the project.
“We had such an awesome turnout on Sunday, which was our first day of the collaboration,” Qualey said Monday morning. “We had family groups, RHS and Barn alumni, JV and varsity cheerleaders — it was about 75 volunteers, and we got a substantial amount of work done.”
Before the volunteers got involved, there were lengthy discussions about what the piece would be.
The Youth Commission’s steering committee had to decide if the artwork was going to be a realistic depiction of Ridgefield, a stylization (meaning images that are simplified in certain ways), or an abstract. They ultimately chose the abstract.
The artists agreed with that decision.
“It’s all about objectivity,” Bruce said. “That’s why there are no words on it, because words limit the viewer’s interpretation.”
“We want people to self-interpret what the mural means to them,” added Joanne. “We want them to be comfortable with it, but also have it push them to think.”
Feeling the cold
Although it will be an entire year until any residents see what the mural looks like outside in the winter — juxtaposed with cold temperatures and snowy weather, the Hunters were mindful of what it’s like to live in the Northeast from December to March.
“One of the first questions we actually asked ourselves was, ‘What will it look like in winter?’ and that actually helped us make a lot of the decisions we made with the colors of the piece,” Joanne said. “An original idea was to have all these blues and greens in it, but we decided to remove all of those colors because we were afraid it would blend in too much during the winter months.”
The goal was always to make something that was “dynamic,” Joanne said, a piece that would stand out to the public during any month of the year.
“We wanted it to be very inviting, with warm and happy colors, and to have a certain rhythm within the composition,” she explained. “These were choices that had to be made long before we sketched out the abstract design and purchased all the materials to make it come to life. …
“The tiles come from all over the world and we had to order them way in advance because they have to be impervious to weather,” she said. “If they’re out there in the rain or in the snow when it’s freezing out and then thaw out in the spring, the glaze will chip off and all the pieces will lose their color. And nobody wants that to happen.”
The Kindness Mural is made out of tesserae — the individual tile pieces used in mosaic work — that volunteers applied cement to last week and stuck on the Hunters’ hand-painted design sketch.
“The cement must be applied appropriately,” Bruce said.
The pieces range in size from a quarter-inch to a full inch. In total, the six panels will weigh 70 pounds and will be 90 square feet.
That begs the question how many tesserae are there in the mural? Good luck counting.
“We’re not mathematicians, we’re artists,” Joanne laughed.
“Bruce came up with a calculation — it’s the number of pieces per square foot times 15 (the number of square feet per panel) times 6,” she said. “We haven’t done the math yet, don’t worry.”
The different sizes of tesserae will change how the piece looks when it’s finished, she explained.
“Once it’s stood up and the six panels come together, it will look a lot different,” she said.
“We did it a piece for the Brookfield Town Hall where all the tesserae were vertical strips, and that came out looking very cool.”
Something to remember
The Hunters, who own the Art Spot school in Danbury, have designed and worked on similar murals up and down the East Coast for the past 22 years.
“We’ve worked for cities and towns, for libraries and schools,” said Joanne. “We love doing this because we’re passionate about art and we’re passionate about helping communities create a lasting message.”
Part of their artistic process is filling in the empty cracks left behind by the community volunteers.
Joanne said part of the puzzle is left for the final day, when she and her husband polish and grout the tiles.  
“Everything should be set by Friday night,” she said. “We can’t grout if it’s not set.”
As with their other projects, the Hunters will always have a sense of attachment to The Kindness Mural.
“It’ll be such a busy week that I’m sure by the end of it, when Sunday comes around, I will be saying to myself, ‘Now what do I do?’ There’s always a natural sense of artistic remorse when something this immersive comes to an end.”
Inspiration and identity
Bruce said the collaborative process he saw in Ridgefield last week has already lent itself to some inspiring, artistic discussion.
“People are already looking at it and making their own interpretations of what it means to them,” he said, further proof that the abstract choice was the right one for Ridgefield.
“It’s all about what the mural needs,” Bruce explained.
“Every piece is different,” he added. “We have done some realistic ones where they tell a specific history and show certain people — Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington — but those can be challenging.”
Qualey said there will be a dedication ceremony in the spring, she hopes sometime in May. The panels will be hung individually outside the teen center and they will be united by a black frame. Once they are in the frame, nobody will ever know they were six individual panels made up of thousands of little pieces.
“When it’s done, there will be nothing like this in the world,” Qualey said.
— Photo credit on slideshow: Kiralyse Hermann and Ann Hermann