Replacing vandalism with art
Community Canvases creates eye-catching murals in University Heights
Published: Thursday, October 31, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 31, 2013 18:10
Alex Cornwell and Jim Montour stood in front of what was once a deteriorating brick building and saw potential. In a matter of weeks, their vision for something beautiful became reality as the remains of the building turned into something beautiful – a giant screaming face spray-painted with purple, green, black and yellow.
This mural, painted by underground Buffalo artist Rusker, is titled “Buffalo Ugly Face” and is one of seven total graffiti murals in the University Heights, the neighborhood surrounding South Campus. These murals are the work of Community Canvases – a research project started by Cornwell, a UB graduate student and the organization’s president.
The effort, which began in February, aims to cover vulgar vandalism and beautify various communities in Buffalo.
Repainting the graffiti around South Campus is Community Canvas’ fourth project, titled “Height in the Heights.” The project’s organizers hope to light up the Heights, which often has a dark connotation due to its crime rates and unsafe homes.
“People think we’re replacing graffiti with vandalism,” said Montour, vice president of Community Canvases and a Tonawanda native.
The non-profit organization argues it’s replacing vandalism with graffiti, and it wants people to understand the differences and why they’re important.
In the eyes of the artists and organizers of Community Canvases, vandalism is a provocative destruction of buildings, whereas graffiti is art.
Artists have been working at a fast pace since last week; there are seven finished pieces around South Campus. Community Canvases hopes to have 12 done before the end of the semester.
“Buffalo Ugly Faces” is Montour’s favorite piece in the collection.
Cornwell thinks of the pieces like his “children” and doesn’t want to play favorites. He is most excited for the artists who normally don’t get the opportunity to have a canvas to display their work.
One graffiti artist who goes by the name of Brakes began working on his mural one day at 8 a.m. and finished by 12 p.m. in below-40 degree weather.
A Disney character named “Handy Manny” standing over 4 feet tall makes up one of Brakes’ spray-paint murals. He painted the eyes with immense detail, pointing out that they remind him of the ice cream characters with big gumball eyes that he used to order from “Mr. Frosty.”
He has since spray-painted a birdhouse, the University Tool Library and other small pieces, all including Handy Manny.
To him, the Handy Manny mural represents a better Buffalo.
Community Canvases turn old, broken down and vandalized buildings into eye-catching scenes with colorful characters posing and jumping into reality – all out of spray paint.
John Stiegler, a 56-year-old resident of Buffalo,took time to acknowledge Brakes’ mural by posing in front of it with his dog for a photo.
“It adds color to a back alley that once had crap all over it, just a lot of color and life to it,” he said.
To Stiegler,the walls were once badly vandalized, but now they’re aesthetically pleasing. Although there is still a graffiti style to what “Height in the Heights” is promoting, many community members recognize it as art.
Community involvement in the University Heights plays a large role in the project’s success.
“When we started this project, there was not a strong connection with the community, and that’s why people didn’t necessarily preserve it well,” Cornwell said.
The University Tool Library has been instrumental in this project – providing both tools and community ties and connections. The Tool Library, located on South Campus, has allowed artists to borrow ladders, paint, brushes and many other tools.
All of the artists are unpaid volunteers. This, along with the Tool Library’s contributions, enforces the emphasis on a community effort that reveals the sincerity and spirit of “Height in the Heights.”
Brakes agreed that community support of local displays of art is vital.
To Montour, what Community Canvases is doing “totally fits the Heights neighborhood.”