BY TRAVIS STEWART | The images may be faded, but the message endures — and it’s one that Hell’s Kitchen needs now more than ever.
Created by artist Arnold Belkin (1930-1992) in the heroic socialist tradition of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera, “Against Domestic Colonialism” depicts working class community members, shoulder to shoulder, fighting eviction and exploitation by wealthy overlords. Over four decades after its 1972 unveiling, the work is in disrepair — and a group of neighborhood residents have made it their number one priority to fix the wall and recreate the mural, which looms large inside of Mathews-Palmer Playground (btw. W. 45th & W. 46th Sts., and Ninth & 10th Aves.).
On Mon., Feb. 8, a group of West Side citizens gathered at the Landmark Tavern (626 11th Ave., at the corner of W. 46th St.) for the annual convening of the West 45/46 Block Association. A loose alliance of three preexisting local groups (the West 46th Street Block Association, the West 45th Street Block Association, and the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association), their joint efforts have come to be known as the Hell’s Kitchen Commons.
According to Stephen Fanto, President of the West 46th Street Block Association, around 25 people attended the informal event. The night was cold and damp, but the enthusiasm of the volunteers was palpable in the cozy, convivial pub atmosphere. The main item on the agenda was the ongoing project to recreate the mural, located at Mathews-Palmer Playground (on W. 45th & W. 46th Sts., btw. Ninth & 10th Aves.).
The mural “is a shadow of its former self,” said Kathleen Treat, Chairwoman of the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association and a Hell’s Kitchen resident for 28 years, “[The recreation of the mural] is one of the easier things in this neighborhood to become engaged in. I love its ’30s WPA [Works Progress Administration] sensibility. It’s very New York. I love the painting itself and I love its philosophy. It’s a lovely amenity.”
While it was announced in June of last year that work on the mural would soon begin, the project stalled in August when “insurance issues” prevented the needed wall repairs that must precede the painting’s restoration. Allison Tupper, Vice President of the West 46th Street Block Association, said the Hell’s Kitchen Commons group hopes to have crews contracted to get that phase moving again by March. “Our hope is to get the work on the actual mural done in May and June, so that when school is out, the kids will have the playground to play in.”
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has also announced a $1-3 million project to reconstruct Mathews-Palmer Playground itself, with work slated to begin sometime after August 2016.
According to Tupper, approximately $12,000 has been raised to date for the mural recreation project, which will require an estimated $90,000 to complete. “Applications have been sent to the New York State Assembly and it looks like that [funding] will happen,” noted Tupper.
“We’re also reaching out to foundations, and crowdfunding through the website Crowdrise. The building management people are prepared to pay for the wall repairs themselves, but it will be more expensive to also make the wall ready for the mural restoration [specifically a recreation; parts of the artwork no longer exist on the wall], so we’re raising money for that aspect as well.”
Professional muralist Denise Penizzotto, whose past work includes projects at the BAM Harvey Theater and Universal Studios Japan, will oversee the recreation of “Against Domestic Colonialism.”
Penissotto has been involved in the Belkin mural restoration project for nearly five years. “I wasn’t there from the beginning, but I was there from the middle,” she said, adding, “There’s a lot I love about this mural: the curves, the forms, and the colors. It will be a beautiful thing to try to recreate a Belkin. His work has a history and a message. I’ve gotten to know some people who actually worked with him, like the painter Peter Ruta, who studied under Diego Rivera. He’s 98 and still painting.” Penissotto noted that efforts are being made to solicit the input of Belkin’s widow, Patricia Quijano, although a response is “still pending.”
Depending on the amount of funds available, it will take Penissotto and a crew of three or four about a month to complete the recreation, “give or take a week.”
She has reached out to a few colleagues who have shown some interest in helping with the project, but plans to make a more formal call for artists once the time frame for that phase of the project is better known.
In the meantime, the Hell’s Kitchen Commons membership is devoted to “raising funds and raising awareness.”
“We need to slow down gentrification in New York and keep housing affordable,” said Tupper, “The message of this mural is still relevant, maybe more relevant than ever.”
To help raise funds for the mural project, visit crowdrise.com/mathewspalmerplaygro1/fundraiser/allisontupper. Also visit mathews-palmer-playground-mural-arts-program.com. For the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association, visit hknanyc.org.