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Arts & Culture
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Bristol's "Art Squad" Finds New Way to Transform the City

Mark Walerysiak
Bristol's "Cultural Ninjas" are transforming plywoods for abandoned properties into Murals.

The "cultural ninjas" are back at it, weeks after stealthily transforming five empty storefronts into beautiful, impromptu art installations. Now, Bristol's Art Squad is tackling abandoned properties.

I spoke with Mark Walerysiak, Jr., brand and marketing manager of Bristol, Connecticut about the new project.

WNPR's Ray Hardman: So tell me about the art squad’s latest mission.

Mark Walerysiak: The Bristol Art Squad, who are like the cultural superheroes of our city, were recently provided something of a "bat symbol” spotlight from from the city. Council woman Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, who also chairs of the Blight Commission, approached the Art Squad when the city saw the buzz created with Operation Storefront Art and the All Heart cultural movement in town etc, and said she had an idea to help transform the boards that go up on boarded up buildings from something less desirable into pieces of art and inspiration. And we said, wow, what an incredible validation of the power of the Arts and the All Heart movement with all these units in the city banding together. We just had to make it happen. “All Heart Art to Fight Blight Day” will be an all day paint fest will take place this Sunday from 8:00 am onward, in conjunction with the West End Association Cleanup. It’s all very exciting! 

So, the city is supplying the materials?

The city is on board with the project -- pun intended, ha -- and has supplying all 20 plywood boards. But an awesome thing also happened, the City was going to purchase the paint supplies, but we talked with Home Depot about the project, and they were so geeked, they donated all the painting supplies — which was an incredible gesture considering how much they donated. They have been so gracious and are yet another partner here — a true example of the All Heart movement in Bristol being contagious.

How did the idea of painting murals on plywood come about?

This was the idea of Ellen ZoppoSassu, so I give her credit, and what a great idea it is. The art squad has many brilliant ideas on which "canvases" and grey areas to paint with vibrancy next in our town, so this project manifested from left field, but when it came across our plates, we thought it was so rad we couldn’t possibly pass it up. As you said, all these forces joining together to do good; what can be better than that?

The arts squad’s first project was to set up impromptu art galleries in empty storefronts throughout the city. What was the response to that project?

The response has been tremendous. It has provided an external visual and vibrant heart beat that has always existed under the vest in Bristol. By putting forth this passion in a forward manner, people are responding. People are hash-tagging positive things about our community on social media. Artists are getting noticed. Our phones are ringing off the hook, and emails filling up from artists who want in on round two, or any future art squad projects.

The storefronts are getting noticed, so that’s providing great advertising of the space for the owners. One of the five storefronts is already rented as an art studio, no less! There was even a woman who wants to occupy a vacant storefront in the future to do her crafts, like a micro showcase. And another storefront might be rented as a result, too.

It’s been incredibly heartwarming to see, and perhaps most of all, it’s connected people to the true essence of our community and provided those interested in arts and culture an avenue to participate, and share their heart with the city to improve the town we love.

City government, politics, art, and artists may not seem like the best partnership. Why is it working in Bristol?

Bristol is a passionate, heartfelt place. We always have been. There’s been this productive lineage dating back to ball bearing and clock manufacturing. So passion and producing great things has never been an issue here, but the one thing I will say was missing has been that connective body to tie all the assets and passions together — to show people how we can work together instead of off on islands alone, to provide truly wonderful win-win-win results for all involved, with the city reaping awesome benefits.

Ever since the Chamber partnered with the city and started this marketing initiative, and the All Heart brand took off, one of our major goals was to provide a way for the community to participate based on this culture -- but also their interest, unleashing their creativity and passions for adding good. It just so happens that the city and others are taking major notice, and want to jump aboard the All Heart express. It’s a pretty awesome thing to see.

I would say if this were Hollywood, it’s turning out how I’d script it, but you never know how it would all play out— it just is turning out to be in that best-case scenario wheelhouse. We’re thrilled, and we’ll work to continue to do good and keep energy and momentum churning.

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