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Somersworth Mural Enlivens City


Condensing a city into symbols is no easy task. Painting those images on a giant exterior wall is harder still. But artist Gordon Carlisle had the skills and Somersworth had the will. Now every passerby can visualize the scene in a superb example of how art builds community.




NOTE: Mural Dedication Set for Friday, Sept. 26, 5- 6:30 PM


Public Art by Gordon Carlisle is Community Affair


READ ALSO: Reflections on a Painted Wall 

Delayed but not thwarted by extreme rain during the drenching summer of 2008, mural artist Gordon Carlisle painted on. His goal – to complete a 1,493-square-foot mural in Somersworth, NH before autumn fell.

smural01.jpgThe work began over a year earlier when Carlisle was chosen for this intensely community-directed job. Working with local officials, historians, business leaders and others, he designed a self-portrait of the city.

No stranger to large-format art, Gordon Carlisle, a resident of South Berwick with a Portsmouth studio, has completed 22 commissions of public art in his 35-year career. But the Somersworth project, he says, is different because "it’s an event, not just an installation." The outdoor canvas is located on Constitutional Way in Somersworth, on the brick wall of the Village Market (formerly known as Cigarette City) across from the Citizens Bank. Here’s how it happened.

Carlisle began a weeklong community arts residency in the Hilltop City. In January funded by the NH State Council on the Arts. First he studied the town’s history at the public library and historical society. He presented the data as part of a slide show and public discussion on different ways of building a community mural. Locals filled out a survey and Carlisle met with over a dozen community groups and dozens more residents and business owners. This give-and-take process culminated in a uniquely collaborative vision.

The mural features six "snapshots" from Somersworth history, along with a glimpse of its possible future, rendered in larger-than-life scale on the wall of Constitutional Way at the edge of downtown. The imagery references the city’s central canal, the General Electric meter that once fueled the manufacturing economy, a soulful image of waitresses at Vic’s Diner during WWII, a shoe and spool of thread, the Burleigh School, the Salmon Falls River in winter, and more.

Today Somersworth is a working-class city of nearly 12,000, formerly a water-powered textile milltown. Like many New England communities, the city declined in the early 20th century, and has now begun a comeback. Darryl Cauchon, former director of the city’s defunct Main Street’ program has shepherded the project from its inception. Donations and grants totaling $18,074 from 26 different community groups and businesses — in increments ranging from $25 to $3,500 — paid for the bulk of the project. The remaining $4,000 was covered by funding from Main Street, itself.

At first, passersby were dubious as they saw the brick wall coated in white, only to have faux bricks painted back on. Carlisle worked from a scissors lift (loaned to the project by the high school) to sketch the images in charcoal, then laid in a sepia underpainting. Curiosity grew as human figures appeared on the wall and their faces gained expression. As viewers arrived and exchanged anecdotes, the art project turned into a living history project. Two of the waitresses depicted in one snapshot, for example, have seen the mural and were re-united after more than half a century. A few photos of the process follow, but the only way to really view this public painting is to visit Somersworth itself. (Adapted from an essay by Hilary A. Niles)

ALL PHOTOS copyright Gary Langley. All rights reserved.





by Gary Langley  






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