The murals became a way to get out some of my sadness but also to bring some kind of joy and meaning into my life.
August 21, 2020
The night before NYC went into lockdown, I received a text from a good friend and the president of the Meatpacking Business Improvement District, Jeffrey LeFrancois: Can you paint a mural tomorrow?
Businesses began boarding up across the city. I assumed it was a safety precaution of being ground level businesses without security on-site, unsure of their retail future. While it practically made sense, boarding their stores didn’t help alleviate the fears of New Yorkers and, instead, created a more stark reality for the neighborhood. It frightened the neighbors and added a level of fear and anxiety that was compounded with the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. LeFrancois had the immediate foresight to combat these boarded storefronts with works of art, turning lemons into lemonade.
I sent LeFrancois several options for mural designs and we settled on a Matisse-style, colorful, bold piece that was meant to uplift and inspire. I also checked in with my crew. Was everyone comfortable doing this? Did everyone have their own PPE and transportation? The risk involved was extremely high, especially because none of us knew if it was safe, or really much about the spread of Covid at that point.
We executed our first mural at Sephora in the Meatpacking District the following day, with a skeleton crew of three people (plus one of my other crew members who happened to be riding by on his bike to go grocery shopping. I waived him over to see if he’d be willing to jump in and, thankfully, he did).
clockwise: Louboutin Meatpacking, Arhaus Little West 12th St, Tory Burch Meatpacking, Arhaus West 13th St
The original Sephora mural gained immediate attention from passers-by and media. Eventually, with support from Northwell Health, we created about 15 large-scale murals around the city over the course of 4 months—about one mural every other week.
Being outdoors from the beginning of quarantine through the reopening has been a whirlwind experience. My team and I had a first-hand look at what was happening in the outside world at every stage of quarantine. We met hundreds of people on the streets: walking their dogs, out for a run, afternoon family walks, and the many, many homeless people that didn’t have an apartment to safely shelter in or food to eat. Our homeless neighbors had the biggest impact on me personally throughout all of this. It was a devastating first-hand look at how privileged I am and how dangerous this pandemic was for those who had less. My husband and I began making PB&J sandwiches and mini-care packages that could be handed out. I bought extra water and food for our crew so we could give as much as possible to those that needed it. I had done Meals on Wheels with my mom growing up and it felt like that had come full circle in such a visceral way. A portion of all mural proceeds have gone to City Meals on Wheels, Feeding America, and The Loveland Foundation.
A very close friend passed away in the first month of Covid and the murals became a way to get out some of my sadness but also to bring some kind of joy and meaning into my life and hopefully other people’s too.
In the beginning, it was a really dark time when we were all feeling some kind of depression and anxiety and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to create something positive for my city and community to combat these feelings. It gave me a sense of purpose, need and release. I was also thankful to be able to keep my crew employed, when no one knew what would happen in the next day, week or month. I could show the love I had for my friend and all the people of New York. It also made me realize what was important to me as an artist—cultivating relationships with people with positive intentions. Using color and pattern in a way that was relatable, presenting it as a gallery of work with NYC as the canvas.
Meeting so many people on the street while we were painting helped lift us up. At the time when we were all told to stay inside and away from each other, it created a way to connect with others from a safe distance. A jogger ran by us one day and threw his hands up in the air to say: Art is essential, thank you! Others asked what we were doing, which allowed us to connect, chat, and learn more about each other. It was an overwhelmingly positive response from everyday people that helped our team feel that we were out there performing a public service that was important at the time.
When the Black Lives Matter protests started, the graffiti came. Some of the sponsored murals asked us to paint over the tagged murals. I was very conflicted as I stand in solidarity with BLM. We didn’t remove or paint over any of these tags. Personally, I went out for several marches and tributes with colleagues and friends. We began donating to The Loveland Foundation at this point and have a forever donation set up with their organization.
The protests put a pause on the original intention of The Mural Project NYC for a few logistical reasons, especially transportation and curfews. I reached out to several connections we had previously made to offer free murals if they would allow BLM or LGBTQ-positive messages to be painted. Very few responded or accepted because it would have been too controversial. I then connected with an amazing group of artists in SoHo that banded together to paint BLM murals around their neighborhood. I met other artists whom I always looked up to and created a piece for Breonna Taylor on The Wall of Justice in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The Wall is a beautiful tribute composed of dozens of artists and will be up for an extended period of time with the permission from the property owner.
I am a native New Yorker, from an hour north of the city. I have come to NYC my whole life and have lived in Brooklyn for over a decade. There is a certain amount of love and pride that comes from being a New Yorker and I truly believe that it is the best city in the world. Anyone else that feels this way knows that it’s been completely devastating to see our city go into such an extreme lockdown. Watching our small businesses shuttered without knowing what will happen next. And, most importantly, to see Covid spread like wildfire and experience the number of deaths that we initially had has been traumatic.
The ambulance sirens and helicopters overhead will haunt me for a long time.
I feel deeply humbled and grateful to have contributed in any small amount to bringing some kind of light and color to what has felt like a really dismal and bleak world we’ve all had to live through. I am proud that NYC has stayed strong and banded together in such an extraordinary way to combat what could have been a much worse situation. The life we’re living now feels like a complete 180 from where we were even two months ago. And I am positive that we will be ever stronger for it.
Some of our murals, including the initial Meatpacking paintings, are now on view at the Rockefeller Center. This includes some of the graffiti tags from BLM. They were installed in collaboration with Re-Ply, an organization that has devoted itself to repurposing NYC boarded-up storefronts into modular furniture that restaurants can use for outdoor seating. Their team has been instrumental in finding ways to reduce the waste of these plywood boards and creating a positive re-purposing of materials that benefits small businesses and restaurants.
We hope to auction off the murals and some individual panels this Fall with proceeds going to a variety of charities most in need, including those mentioned earlier. In a perfect world, businesses will remove all of their shuttered storefronts and reopen but I know that’s a very optimistic point of view.
We hope that in the meantime, the paintings are a source of hope, love, joy, and pride for NYC and bring everyone a bit of peace amidst the chaos we’ve all had to live through.
Theresa Rivera is an artist and designer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is the owner of Theresa Rivera Design, a bespoke art direction and production company operating internationally. Rivera has worked with major clients in advertising and fashion industries, such as Versace, Gucci, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. Her studio is focused on equal opportunity employment, mindful representation of the BIPOC community and ongoing charity work. @TheresaRiveraDesign︎︎︎