Artists contribute sidewalk murals for Juneteenth celebration in Greenfield

Youme Nguyen Ly has painted three sidewalk murals, including one in front of Greenfield Savings Bank, which was once the location of John Putnam’s barbershop. Putnam, a free Black man living in Greenfield during the mid-19th century and a successful fiddler and dance caller,  assisted many enslaved individuals escape to freedom. Nguyen Ly painted Putnam’s fiddle along with a quote from an announcement Putnam had put in a local paper to advertise himself as a fiddler and caller: “To the dancing community, I am yet alive and in the field.”

Youme Nguyen Ly has painted three sidewalk murals, including one in front of Greenfield Savings Bank, which was once the location of John Putnam’s barbershop. Putnam, a free Black man living in Greenfield during the mid-19th century and a successful fiddler and dance caller, assisted many enslaved individuals escape to freedom. Nguyen Ly painted Putnam’s fiddle along with a quote from an announcement Putnam had put in a local paper to advertise himself as a fiddler and caller: “To the dancing community, I am yet alive and in the field.” STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Youme Nguyen Ly with one of her sidewalk murals on Main Street near Greenfield Savings Bank.

Youme Nguyen Ly with one of her sidewalk murals on Main Street near Greenfield Savings Bank. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

A sidewalk mural by Youme Nguyen Ly on Federal Street in Greenfield near the Greenfield Cooperative Bank.

A sidewalk mural by Youme Nguyen Ly on Federal Street in Greenfield near the Greenfield Cooperative Bank. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Youme Nguyen Ly works on one of her three sidewalk murals on Main Street near Crescent Street in Greenfield.

Youme Nguyen Ly works on one of her three sidewalk murals on Main Street near Crescent Street in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By ADA DENENFELD KELLY

For the Recorder

Published: 06-14-2024 2:34 PM

Greenfield is putting an artistic twist on its Juneteenth celebrations this year with the unveiling of a downtown sidewalk mural project celebrating the city’s abolitionist history.

There will be a guided tour through the 12 historic sites on Wednesday, June 19, at 9 a.m., starting at 31 Bank Row and ending at Veteran’s Mall before the 11 a.m. Juneteenth parade begins at City Hall.

The sidewalk murals are coated in a non-skid layer for safety and are intended to last for up to a year, due to wear from sidewalk usage, according to Matthew Conway, communications director for the Mayor’s Office.

The project was funded by the New England Foundation for the Arts and includes 12 sites related to Greenfield’s abolitionist history, painted by nine artists who worked either individually or in teams. Sites include locations that are rumored or confirmed to have been part of the Underground Railroad and former homes of abolitionist leaders.

“The Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Downtown Art Walk is a fantastic platform to commemorate the immeasurable impact of these significant people and places,” Mayor Ginny Desorgher said in a statement.

One of the muralists is Trouble Mandeson. Her mural, at the corner of Coombs Avenue and Main Street, depicts the home of Samuel Wells, who, according to information on the Visit Greenfield website, was rumored to be part of the Underground Railroad. Above the house, Mandeson painted individuals holding hands — to the left, labeled “1864,” abolitionists and the formerly enslaved stand in a line, and to the right, labeled “2024,” Black Lives Matter protesters stand together.

“It’s been a really fun experience,” Mandeson said. “They gave us a combination to the shed behind City Hall and we just go get ... the paint, and we’re all paid for this. They commissioned us.”

Although Mandeson was initially hesitant to throw her hat in the ring to participate in the downtown mural project, she persevered, creating a mural in what she describes as a “folk art” style.

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“I like to do new things and I like a challenge,” she said. “Part of it was I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t think I could and part of it was like, of course I can! If I get it, I’m just going to push through.”

Another participating muralist is Youme Nguyen Ly. She has painted three sidewalk murals, including one in front of Greenfield Savings Bank, which was once the location of John Putnam’s barbershop. Putnam, a free Black man living in Greenfield during the mid-19th century and a successful fiddler and dance caller, assisted many enslaved individuals escape to freedom.

There, she painted Putnam’s fiddle along with a quote from an announcement Putnam had put in a local paper to advertise himself as a fiddler and caller: “To the dancing community, I am yet alive and in the field.”

“It was his way of saying, ‘You can still hire me, I’m out here,’ but it was very poignant for me … because music is alive and helps connect us to the past and the future, as well as ancestors and relatives. I feel that he is alive. It’s amazing that he wrote that message to us from the past,” Nguyen Ly said.

However, some community members feel uncomfortable with the placement of the murals on the sidewalk. Nguyen Ly said that as she worked, some people shared their feelings with her.

“More than one person has said that they don’t want to walk on any art, but particularly the history,” she explained. “The way it stays in my mind is, ‘Our history should not be walked on. It should be respected. And traditionally the lowest place is the least respected.’”

Nguyen Ly had conflicting feelings about this for herself, but chose to go ahead with the project while making a point to not paint faces that would be stepped on. Similarly, one of her murals incorporates Juneteenth flag iconography, and she made a point of leaving a space unpainted in the center, so that pedestrians do not have to step on her mural, which resembles a flag.

“I wouldn’t want anybody to walk on my face, or the face of a loved one,” Nguyen Ly said.

Although, she acknowledges that for some who spend their days looking down as they walk, seeing the face of a leader can be inspirational.

Still, many are excited for the Juneteenth programming.

“I can’t wait ’til the walk on Juneteenth so I can see everybody else’s artwork,” said Melissa Pandina, another participating muralist. “It’s a wonderful project. They really managed to put a lot of moving pieces together and make something very special.”

Nguyen Ly also shared her motivation for participating in the project, stating that she is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I’m heartbroken by even my own ignorance and participation in a country that, while giving opportunity and … care to so many, is also built on a system that hurts, imprisons and undermines so many. And so I think that any way we can look at our past and our actions as a country of diverse people...” she said. “I’m really grateful to Greenfield for putting this opportunity out there for us and I’m interested to see how it’s received and how it will grow.”

There is a digital, self-guided version of the tour available at visitgreenfieldma.com/art-walk for those who are unable to make it to the Juneteenth event.