ITHACA, N.Y. — People shouldn’t have to go to a gallery or museum to be inspired by art, according to Ithaca Murals organizer Caleb Thomas. In Ithaca, they don’t have to. Over the past ten years the city has seen an explosion of public art, with more than 150 murals now brightening walls.
For Thomas, the goal is not purely aesthetic. “One wall at a time we are having this artist takeover,” he said, “one wall at a time, it’s a cultural shift in our city’s identity.”
Thomas began organizing murals in 2009, after working as part of a coalition to change the name of State Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Street. After the group secured a dual-designation for the street, Thomas was motivated to see how else grassroots efforts could shift the cultural cityscape.
Listing city streets, parks and buildings – many named for rich, white men – Thomas said he wanted public spaces to represent the full community.
The first mural Thomas helped organize, on Green Street, features Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in a representation of the Underground Railroad by artist Jonathan Matas. “That was such a success it’s like, let’s do another!”
Thomas has since worked with partners from City Hall to homeowners to find walls for artists to reimagine. With a focus on supporting artists of color, women, people with jail experience, and others who have been excluded from institutions like galleries and museums, Ithaca Murals has worked to transform the city’s cultural identity.
Four mural projects are currently underway, including one that puts environmental conservation front and center on the South Hill Recreation Way. Artist Nico Cathcart recently brought two endangered species to life on the fence near the trail’s Hudson Street access point, a short-eared owl and Karner Blue butterfly.
Cathcart lives in Richmond, Virginia but has family in Ithaca, where she spent time while attending high school in Cortland.
“To me, Ithaca was always hiking and being outdoors,” Cathcart said. She reached out to Thomas to find an wall to include in a series of nature-themed murals. “It’s kind of cool to watch Ithaca develop as an artistic community,” she said after touring the artwork marked on the Ithaca Murals map.
The Ithaca Murals mission statement says the organization is “transforming gray walls into beautiful meaningful works of art that tell the stories of the diverse people who live here & what we care about.” With more than 20 projects lined up for the summer, Ithacans can expect to see lots of new stories on the city’s walls soon.