The rebellious beauty of her paintbrush to a wall
May 02, 2016 01:40PM
● By Steven Hoffman
For the time it takes to pass by a mural created by Catherine Czerwinski, she owns you.
In that moment -- no matter if it happens on foot, or in a flicker of an eye from the seat of a passing car -- the floating kaleidoscope of what comes from her head space and ends up on a wall does the job of what art is intended to do -- when it becomes more than just pretty paintings.
Give someone a pen, and there is always the chance that you will read the work of the next great novelist. Give someone a camera and with luck and vision and light, you will see the artist emerge from behind the machine. Give someone a paintbrush and paint and a canvas, and there is the hope that a new Matisse will be crowned, but toss in the forlorn side of a building made of clapboard or cement along with those paints and brushes, and the stakes all of a sudden get larger. The opportunity for expression grows wider, and so does the responsibility of the artist not to waste it.
Catherine Czerwinski has not wasted the gift of being able to stand in front of ugly walls and make them beautiful. In Bocas del Toro, Panama; at restaurants and marketplaces and hotels throughout Costa Rica; at locations in Rehoboth and Wilmington and now in Newark, the gift of the big spaces have been given to and filled up by Czerwinski, and done so with brilliant bursts of color that reflect messages of hope, spirituality and connection to the places she paints.
"One of my biggest philosophies in life is if you want to make change don't focus on changing the old but simply form the new," said Czerwinski, 25, whose Newark Beautification Mural Project began last year. "It's always my intention to create something positive."
When she was two years old, Czerwinski's father woke from a nap and found his daughter in the family kitchen with a tub of margarine and a spatula, painting every available flat surface she could find. When she was a pre-schooler at the Ogletown Baptist Preschool, teachers would give the students cups of water and paintbrushes at recess, and ask them to paint the outside walls of the school with water. When the water dried, the children went back to the walls with paintbrushes and more cups of water. It remains one of Czerwinski's happiest memories of childhood. Every year for her birthday, her parents would give their daughter a set of paints and paintbrushes.
As she grew older, Czerwinski, now 25, had the happy problem of being able to toss her attention anywhere and land on a creative pursuit, and art was only one of them. At St. Marks High School, she played keyboards, tambourine and sang for a band named Firecrackers Don't Make Friends.
"I was always thought of as the artist in the family, so whenever there was a need to have something drawn, everyone thought, 'Oh, Catherine's artistic. Give it to her,'" Czerwinski said. "Most artists have that moment where they say that they're going to be an artist. I never had that moment, because it was always who I was. From the time I was old enough, I was always painting and writing and singing and creating."
Perhaps the most unfair predicament to place a teenager in is to point to the tabula rasa of his or her future and ask them to fill it in -- to construct the building blocks that will eventually enable it to be complete. When that teenager is born with a dizzying and untamed sense of creativity, being asked to make choices is often paralyzing; t is as if his or her gifts have already burst through the cracks like wildflowers beneath cement, seeking light and air. Far too often, they remain there on the sidewalk, like a crime scene of neglect.
By the time Czerwinski entered Clemson University in the fall of 2008, she carried the wildflowers but only as a faint, far-off notion that she would ever have the chance to spend her life among them. Four years later, a period that also included a semester studying in Florence, Italy, Czerwinski graduated with a degree in marketing. When she returned to Newark at 22, her plans were to work part-time for the summer while applying to graduate school in London. There, she would pursue a Master's degree in marketing. One day, her father asked Catherine how her application was coming along.
"I thought, 'Where is this really going to take me?'" she said. "Is this something I really want to do?'"
Czerwinski had heard that some of her friends were getting jobs teaching English as a foreign language in other parts of the world. It sounded like a fantastic idea, and eventually, she found a program in Costa Rica where she could do the same. Soon after she left Newark for Costa Rica, Czerwinski completed the program to teach English, but never did. Instead, she took a part-time job as a receptionist at a hotel, where she began to learn Spanish. While there, she met two guys who were about to open a beach bar. She told them that she was an artist, and she was hired immediately, paying her ten dollars and food to create signage. Eventually, she was hired to create signage throughout the hotel, which led to similar projects at other hotels, as well as restaurants and markets, who asked her to paint logos and fancy signage.
"It was such a sensation, to be out of school and be on my own, in a new country," she said. "It was complete freedom -- freedom from being a part of the system, of going to school with people who all seem to be on the same path, where everyone is eating at the same time, and going to the same places. Costa Rica was challenging, eye-opening, and it gave me the chance to learn about myself and the time in which to do it.
In August 2013, her sister came to visit her in Costa Rica. "I told her, 'Liz, I'm not going to be able to do anything else for the rest of my life,'" Czerwinski said. "Being self employed in Costa Rica...I don't think it gets much better than this.
"My time in Costa Rica made me realize there was no reason to be afraid," she said. "I used to feel like I had to put on an act in order to fit in with the world around me. I grew up having all of the ideas, and I didn't really know what to make of them until I lived in Costa Rica and had the freedom to explore them in an entirely new culture. Consequently, I was able to re-examine the culture I grew up in."
While she was in Costa Rica, Czerwinski began writing for an arts media company called Art Above Reality (AAR). When she returned to the United States in December 2014, she went to Miami as a member of the media to cover Art Basel Miami Beach, as well as represent several artists who AAR represented. At the time, the Philadelphia-based artist James Dupree was AAR's top client, with whom Czerwinski worked closely, and soon after, Dupree asked Czerwinski if she would become his assistant at his gallery and studio museum in Philadelphia.
Dupree and Czerwinski then applied for the coveted ArtPlace America grant through the National Endowment for the Arts, in order to get the money to renovate the museum and be able to offer art classes. As finalists for the grant, they received a site visit from members of the NEA and ArtPlace America. During the visit, Czerwinski heard the words that she had waited to hear.
"The ArtPlace America presenter spoke about how artists are meant to be in the communities, so as I was listening, I decided that I was going to come back to my own community," Czerwinski said. "I knew I couldn’t spend any more time or energy working towards someone else’s vision, I had to follow my own."
Within a short few weeks, Czerwinski left her job in Philadelphia and conceived what would become the Newark Beautification Project, a public initiative to create more public art in the town while at the same time providing artistic opportunities for local high school students who have an interest in art.
In the spring of last year, Czerwinski met with Newark Mayor Polly Sierer, to review her plans to launch the project. Sierer embraced the idea, and after a final presentation to the Newark City Council in June, Czerwinski, armed with paints, brushes, ladders and the enthusiasm of students, approached a blank white wall at Wonderland Records in Newark, last July.
The mural, completed last August at the corner of New London Road and West Main Street, forms a 30-foot-long, ten-foot high love letter to the rich history of the Delaware music scene. The local references are everywhere, connected by familiar imagery of the famed venue the Stone Balloon: Wilmington native and trumpeter Clifford Brown; the Sin City Band; Love Seed Mama Jump; George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers; the Spinto Band; Mad Sweet Pangs; and recognition of Cab Calloway and Bob Marley, whose brief periods in Delaware are accounted for in the mural.
"The local music scene has played a very special place in my life, so I wanted to celebrate that," Czerwinski said. "You go to a lot of other towns, and they don't have that same music scene. It's really booming here. Even when I went to college, I brought all of this great music down with me."
Early this spring, Czerwinski completed work on the project's second mural -- a stunningly colorful collage of green, orange and pink on the side of Panera Bread off of Main Street. In deference to Delaware, the mural features cave swallows and blue herons, reminiscent of the state's marshes and waterways. It's the second phase in a project that is expected to include murals at several other locations throughout Newark, including the railroad bridge at Casho Mill Road and a community garden in Fairfield Park. At each stop, the individual projects will be paid for with private funding and through fundraising efforts.
Throughout the project, Czerwinski has invited students from Newark High School and Newark Charter High School to work with her on the project. One of them, Brianna Johnson of Newark Charter, has since pitched a mural project to her school and will be completing a mural with her classmates by the end of the academic year.
In addition, as a result of her mural work, Czerwinski has joined the Downtown Newark Partnership's Design Committee.
"The committee has been very supportive of the NBP, and we have even collectively updated its guidelines so that it suggests consideration for public art to builders and business owners in the downtown Newark area," Czerwinski said.
While the Newark Beautification Project has begun to take root, it's certainly not the only Delaware-based mural painting Czerwinski has been involved in. Last October, she worked in collaboration with CAMP Rehoboth, the Delaware State Housing Authority, the Burton Village 4-H Club and community to create a mural at the Burton Village Apartments in Rehoboth Beach. Last November, she worked in partnership with art therapist Lindsay Ledarman at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, to create a canvas inspired by the many reasons to smile. Originally unveiled in the hospital's atrium, the mural is now in a permanent location in another area of the hospital.
This past January, Czerwinski visited Panama, where she created the Bastimentos Mural Project in the town of Bocas del Toro in collaboration with the organization Give and Surf. There, she created a mural on a three-tier wall at a seaside dock in Bastimentos, filling the 500-square-foot space with the local flavor of what she was seeing and feeling all around her -- the vibrancy of the blue sky, the flowers and trees, and the constant presence of water.
"Any blank thing is a canvas to me," Czerwinski said. "The uglier it is, the more apt I am to want to paint it. I want to keep doing socially charged mural projects. I want to paint more peace, a sense of positivism. If it only takes people five seconds to walk by one of my murals, I want to give them five seconds of peace.
"Quite simply, I want to to make the world a more beautiful place."
If you would like to explore the idea of expanding the Newark Beautification Project to your business or organization, e-mail Czerwinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Catherine Czerwinski, visit www.ccczerwinski.com.