As I walked to work last Election Day, I passed a crew power-washing a mural off the side of a building. Concentrated blasts of water hit the wall, dislodging chips of paint that swirled in rivulets towards the gutter. I frantically snapped pictures with my phone of the disappearing images from Daniel Galvez’s “Crossroads” mural, which had adorned the side of Central Square Library in Cambridge for over three decades. In creating it, Galvez had enlisted the help of local photographers to document the daily activities of neighborhood residents. He used these photographs as a design reference, and community volunteers to help paint.
As a student, Galvez studied the work of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros, the three most influential Mexican muralists of the 20th century. He became enchanted with the scale of their work, as well with how murals were used to convey information about the history of the country through imagery in a way that was accessible to those who could not read or write. “Art was being used as a tool for education, while at the same time promoting pride in culture, dance, music and history,” Galvez said. “That is what I wanted to do with my art.” Because murals can tell stories through pictures, Galvez said, they can expand ideas, and push themes or ideals in ways sculpture cannot. They can “not change minds, but open minds — about their community and what is going on.”
Growing up in Cambridgeport, I was surrounded by many such murals. They graced the sides of grocery stores or fences surrounding basketball courts. Others lined the walls of my elementary school, and grew each year with contributions from students. Many are still there,
including another Galvez piece, “Crosswinds,” on the side of the Middle East Restaurant, in which he incorporated textiles and cultural symbols to celebrate the origins of neighborhood residents. Bernie LaCasse’s “Beat the Belt,” recently restored on the side of Micro Center, commemorates a grassroots movement that prevented construction of a federal highway that would have carved up the neighborhood. David Fichter’s “Potluck,” off Bishop Allen Drive, shows a diverse gathering of Area Four residents laughing, talking and eating together. Like Galvez, Fichter drew inspiration from real-life neighbors and assistance from volunteers, and his mural represents a multicultural, socioeconomically diverse community endangered by skyrocketing rents.
Many of these works came about as a result of the 1979 Percent for Arts City Ordinance, which decreed that one percent of municipal capital investment construction costs must go towards funding site-responsive public artwork. Over the course of the last 40 years, the Cambridge Arts Council has overseen the creation and development of more than 200 works of art — in parks, schools, libraries and other locations.