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Students in East Lyme join forces to create mural for racial justice

East Lyme — Forty-five students donned smocks Thursday at East Lyme Middle School to collaborate on an all-day mural project led by artists of Public Art for Racial Justice Education, known as PARJE.

The project involved students from the high, middle and elementary schools.

PARJE, a New London County social justice group, was established in response to the death of George Floyd. The project involves pairing towns with community murals that celebrate notable but lesser-known figures in history who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color.

Norwich, East Lyme’s sister mural town, completed its project in January and dedicated its mural of 12 public figures on Martin Luther King’s birthday.

The East Lyme mural, which is designed to be modular and portable, features David Ruggles, who opened the first Black-owned U.S. bookstore in New York City in 1834 and had connections to the East Lyme community.

“We had the very deliberate goal to recreate David Ruggle’s bookstore,” Jason Deeble, 42, of East Lyme said.

He is the town's coordinator with PARJE who proposed Ruggles’ bookstore as the focus for the mural. But he said the design doesn’t belong to him.

“It was a vessel. I wanted to create a container that others could contribute to,” he said, referring to the children and books in the mural image that student artists embellished and personalized.

He said his goal was to inspire every grade level and to reflect the themes of diversity, equity and inclusion in the art. Deeble also pointed out that artwork featuring a bookstore reflects East Lyme’s art and culture and its “network of artists.”

“It’s a place where people care about artistic expression,” he said, also pointing out that East Lyme boasts four bookstores, a record shop, an instrument shop, a cinema and an art studio for kids.

Teachers overseeing the program commented on the opportunity for the project to teach students about teamwork and diversity of expression. As they arrived, the students were shown the model of the mural and spread out over three large tables; they decided which part of the mural they wanted to paint and chose the colors they wanted to use.

“They’re used to doing more independent work,” Kat Zacarelli, art teacher at East Lyme Middle School said. “Here, it’s more collaborative.”

“It is very personality based. Some want to follow the model exactly and some take creative license,” added fourth-grade teacher Patrick Daily. 

The middle school students chose to paint larger areas of the mural, such as the bookcase, sky, floor, children or cats in the image, while the high school students worked on finer detail such as book spines and covers.

Tessa Page, a junior at the high school volunteered to paint the cover of a book titled “Someone Builds the Dream” by Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long. It features a younger woman in construction garb holding a large wrench and facing a bridge. She appreciated having the entire day to work on the mural with kids of all ages.

“I like that it’s a traveling mural. It’s pretty cool,” she said.

Eddie Long, co-chair of the PARJE Steering Committee, said “the heart of the project is growing community."

Superintendent Jeffrey Newton stopped by to visit the PARJE artists.

“The engagement is awesome,” he said. “We’re continuing to build unity and equity across the district.”

Emida Roller, lead artist for PARJE’s Sister Mural Project, has been painting murals for almost 20 years and has worked with many artists who were not necessarily mural artists.

“It’s one thing to paint on canvas. It’s different painting on 50-foot walls,” she said.

The mural will first be exhibited at East Lyme Middle School and then travel to the other schools in the district. Deeble is looking forward to the difficult conversations that this piece of public art may spark.

“I want everybody’s input. I want people to start thinking, to talk, mix it up, and hear what each other has to say,” he said. “I hope the kids ask questions about why he [Ruggles] is important.”

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