The first in a series of art projects occurring in the Metcalfe Park community over the summer began this week — even if it faced a Monday rain delay.
Artist Quan Caston, who lives in the neighborhood, used sidewalk chalk to sketch out his literacy-themed comic strip about a butterfly and had just begun painting when the rains came. He took his inspiration for his mural from Butterfly Park where it is located.
With the rain, his 12-panel sidewalk mural became a blurry haze of blue and white paint. Undaunted Caston vowed to finish the project when the weather cooperated.
“It is not over,” said Caston. “My office is here, so I will just come down and gather some kids and we will finish it out.”
Caston’s piece, about a caterpillar learning it’s a butterfly through reading, is one of three art projects going up through Metcalfe Park Painted, a program aimed at inspiring and beautifying the community on the city’s north side.
The program has several purposes, including to create safe spaces for residents to gather and reconnect after being on lockdown for months due to COVID-19. The project also plans to tackle reckless driving and traffic fatalities by creating street art or “traffic-calming murals” on specific streets prone to traffic accidents and fatalities.
Caston’s piece, originally proposed to be painted on a portion of 37th Street between North Avenue and Meinecke, was moved to the sidewalk when the city raised concerns about children’s safety.
The group Metcalfe Park Community Bridges is working with artists and other community groups to create the artwork, including a 9 x 80-foot mural on the side of a food pantry.
The group partnered with Artists Working In Education, Imagine MKE and Jewish Community Pantry, whose exterior façade will be home to the new mural.
Monday’s event was the first of several planned community painting sessions where residents can help paint the artwork. These events will also double as community resource fairs and food give-ways.
“We are doing a lot of different art projects that are tackling reckless driving, encouraging folks to slow down and also bringing people together and highlighting all of the dope people in the community,” said Melody McCurtis, deputy director of priorities and an organizer with Metcalfe Park Community Bridges.
“It’s the start of something really massive.”
Art as a ‘traffic-calming’ initiative
That massive idea came from a revised 2019 community-led neighborhood revitalization plan.
Residents wanted to see more art-focused projects that evoked community connections, as well as more cultural vibrancy to change perceptions of Metcalfe Park and new ways to address traffic safety.
Public safety was a big issue for residents, McCurtis said.
Her organization’s research found that between Jan. 1, 2018 and Sept. 10, 2019, the intersection of N. 35th and W. Center streets had 49 accidents. Meanwhile, the intersection of N. 35th St. and W. North Ave. had 34. And more than 100 accidents occurred in or near No. 27th and W. Center streets.
Milwaukee streets, McCurtis said, often are not designed to promote walkable communities. Many streets don’t have protected bike lanes, nor are they striped, while others lack stop signs. More affluent neighborhoods, she noted, have bump-outs planted with flowers, speed bumps, or cul-de-sacs.
Metcalfe Park has none of those. Instead of waiting for the city to take action on its own, residents did their own research and came up with a solution — art.
Research shows that pictures of animals and large insects painted on the street itself can reduce accidents, McCurtis said, a strategy that has worked in other cities, including Baltimore and New York.
McCurtis’ organization received funding from the city’s Department of Public Works for the traffic-calming art effort.
At Monday’s event, Metcalfe Park Bridges passed out yard signs that encourage drivers to slow down. The art project also will use decorative streetlight banners designed by another artist to encourage safe driving in the community.
“I think art is going to slow people down,” McCurtis said. “We know we need some street alterations. We need city resources to make that happened. This is just something to do for now as we move in that direction.”
From community sketchbook to community mural
The big project planned for the neighborhood is the mural on the brick wall of a food pantry located at 2900 W. Center St.
“This mural will really signify what Metcalfe Park is — a community that keeps each other safe; a community that loves on each other; a community that supports each other… (and) that’s still standing even after enduring all the things that they’ve endured,” McCurtis said. “We really want to celebrate us as Black people through art.”
To solicit input, Metcalfe Park Community Bridges worked asked residents to contribute to a sketchbook, which included idea-sparking questions, such as “What brings you joy?” and “How does it feel to raise a family Metcalfe Park?”
Adults and children could answer with words, drawings, or doodles. The mural will be a compilation of those ideas and images.
The sketchbooks revealed a common theme: that Metcalfe Park is a resilient, proud, family-oriented, and diverse community, said John Kowalczyk, program director for Artists Working in Education, a visual arts nonprofit.
His group will oversee the pantry mural, which will start later this month and run into August, and a mural in the crosswalk at N. 34th and W. Center streets.
Kowalczyk said using residents’ ideas ensures their voices and stories are portrayed in the mural. Often people drive through neighborhoods knowing little about the area or have a stereotypical view of it, he noted. A mural not only adds a pop of color and beauty, but can work to dispel myths about the people who live there.
“Murals are inspiring because they can help form the narrative of the neighborhood so they can shift perceptions,” Kowalczyk said. “They can help better tell the story of the residents and the community members to really let their voice shine or images of themselves shine through.”