Hygienic Art launches mural project at New London police station

Adriana Robbins, 17, of Norwich, works on a mermaid painting as part of a mural workshop run by Hygienic Art resident artist Troy Zaushny on April 18. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Adriana Robbins, 17, of Norwich, works on a mermaid painting as part of a mural workshop run by Hygienic Art resident artist Troy Zaushny on April 18. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

High school student artists are having their first brush with a public art project this spring.

The purpose: to advocate for positive change in their community via visual art.

A grant from the Connecticut Office of the Arts Public Art Community Projects Program funded the mural project that’s supported by the City of New London, Hygienic Art, the New London School district and New London Main Street.

Students from area high schools applied for the project in March. The core group of six students who were accepted began meeting, collaborating and painting the movable parts of the mural two days a week after school in early April at the Hygienic Art Galleries where they’re working under the leadership of resident artist Troy Zaushny.

Zaushny knows a thing or two about large commissioned art projects. His work reaches across the ocean from the New London Mural Walk to a recently completed painting tour of Maji and the Southern Nations of Ethiopia.

“The intention is for the students to learn how to propose and produce a work of public art in a high profile area from start to finish,” Zaushny explains. “It’s also an experiment in collaboration as we are merging the styles of a number of artists from varying backgrounds.”

Zaushny says that being a public artists means having a voice in one’s community and the power to bring about change, as well as to discover how art can create a safer, more peaceful environment. 

Police work

Zaushny explains that it was the police department that initially approached the Hygienic to see if someone could come down and paint a mural in the lobby. Although there wasn’t a budget to pay for the work, Zaushny had just received the community grant from the state and thought it would be a good project to do with the students.

“Initially, when I did the grant, there were some riots about police mishandling in other places and it was pretty shocking and I thought, ‘Why am I doing a police station?’ Zaushny recalls. “Then I thought, here’s an opportunity for us to go in there and create this environment that’s conducive to peace, that makes a positive connection with the community.”

Before brainstorming ideas, Zaushny and the students went down to the police station to look at the space.

“It was kind of stark, it looked almost like the inside of a prison with a barred railing on top,” he says. “People were waiting in the lobby for their numbers to be called. Their kids were frustrated, wanting to get out of there.”

Back at the Hygienic, Zaushny and the students discussed what they had witnessed and rather than just “decorating” the inside of the police station, they decided to go for “the real audience,” he says.

“We’re not trying to make a protest statement or a social issue statement right there,” he says. “What we want to do, though, is make this a positive environment for people waiting in that area, but also have it to do with our location, the feeling of New London.” 

Conceptualizing the mural

After lots of discussion and sketching, an idea emerged from one of the students, Xiang yu Jin (known as Kyle), an international student studying at Norwich Free Academy, that Zaushny says amazed him.

“He had this concept of a mermaid flying through the clouds with the city of New London on her tail,” Zaushny says.

Kyle began collaborating on the focal point of the mural with Adriana Robbins, also a student at Norwich Free Academy, who is painting the mermaid.

“I really like painting, although I usually paint in oil and this is acrylic, so it’s kind of a weird but interesting experience,” she says. And, she points out, the mural is much larger in scale than anything she’s done before.

“I’m really excited to see how everybody’s contributions fit together and to put something up and have people be able to see it,” she adds.

Zaushny says the mural is starting to mesh and he’s determining what everyone’s strengths are so that all the students can participate.

“Maybe two people will work on the mermaid/city and then there’s the environment — the water and sky parts,” he explains. “We noticed the kids waiting in the police department were bored, and so we’re going to make a lot of details along the lower areas where the kids can go and find things underwater.”

By the second week of May the students will be ready to start painting the completed sketch on the wall and he hopes to complete it by early June.

In addition to the main lobby mural, students are working on smaller pieces that will be completed at the Hygienic and hung in other areas of the police station.

This includes a large, action-packed colorful canvas featuring a ship that was conceived by Jessica Oppert, a graphic design student at Norwich Technical High School.

Zaushny projected Oppert’s drawing onto a canvas, taped it on the wall, and presented it to younger kids who attend the Hygienic Artist Academy.

“We read them a story about a cat on a boat that saved someone from drowning, so they had some ideas,” he says, “and then we gave them the paint and they started in the middle and just painted the whole thing in half an hour. It was a collaboration of like 16 people.”

“Jessica knew the kids were going to color it in, but she didn’t know how and was excited to see what would happen with the concept,” Zaushny says.

Moli Michel, who attends New London High School, proposed a photo collage in a small reception area.

“She wants to go out in the community and talk to people, perhaps with police officers, and take pictures and make a collage in that area,” Zaushny says. “There would be stories to go with the photos. She’s also a writer. So, it’s going to be very personal.”

More thoughts on the project

New London artist Kim Abraham and her young adult son Ben Abraham are assisting Zaushny on the mural project.

“When you collaborate, you have no idea what’s going to happen. Everyone has the same intention, so that’s the magic of it,” say Kim Abraham. “Sometimes its amazing to see how much people are on the same page.

“Plus, collaborating can be really good for people who aren’t quite sure how to get things out there,” she adds. “You learn from each other. Last week we were working on hands and everyone was talking about how difficult it was to draw hands. But instead of just one person saying, ‘Here’s how we do this,’ here’s a bunch of people contributing ideas and together we can see what works best.”

Ben Abraham is providing “a lot of the muscle” that goes into a project of this scale.

“I also like doing art and I’m a DJ, so I’m very into the arts scene,” he says. “I think art really helps a community. It gets people out of trouble. And it’s good for New London. People give (the city) a bad rap all the time. I’m glad that art is forming something that people want to come here and see and say, ‘Oh, wow, New London is a really nice place.”

Troy Zaushny encourages people to watch the mural’s progress and feel free to comment and add suggestions at https://www.facebook.com/ArtCPSpage or http://artcps.holomaya.org or email publicmural101@gmail.com.

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