Public art project promotes compassion and connection in turbulent times

After the violent and deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, Rutgers University alumna Cassandra Oliveras-Moreno was, like many people, left feeling helpless and overwhelmed by the hate and negativity streaming at her from the news media.

At the same time, Oliveras-Moreno says she was bolstered by the “incredible work and strides being made” by organizations focused on social and environmental justice in Highland Park, New Jersey, where she lives, and its neighbor New Brunswick, where she works as the communications and collaboration administrator in the Visual Arts Department at Mason Gross School of the Arts.

“While there are no easy answers to be found,” she wrote to her colleagues on the New Brunswick Community Arts Council a few days after the rally, “I would like to ask that we consider the potential for an artful response.”

Just a few months later, that response came in the form of the Windows of Understanding project, a public art installation across New Brunswick and Highland Park that Oliveras-Moreno developed with arts council members and Rutgers alumnae Jennifer Sevilla and Tracey O’Reggio Clark. With the tagline “We See Through Hate,” it launched on January 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as an homage to Dr. King’s legacy.

The month-long installation, co-presented by the New Brunswick Community Arts Council, the Mason Gross School, and the Highland Park Arts Commission, pairs nearly 20 local artists—many of whom are Mason Gross students—with community organizations to promote compassion and awareness around social justice issues. The installations appear in storefronts on Church, George, and French streets in New Brunswick, as well as along Raritan Avenue in Highland Park, and present themes including cultural identity, faith-based initiatives, environmental conservation, homelessness, and youth mentoring.


Leaving the ‘bubble’
Visual arts graduate student Enrique Figueredo, always on the lookout for learning experiences outside of his MFA program, responded to Oliveras-Moreno’s open call immediately.

“I kind of say yes to a lot of things because I see it as I’m here for two years and then I’m gone, so I might as well meet and work with as many people as I can,” says Figueredo. “I don’t want to come to this school and shut myself off and then leave.”

Figueredo was paired with Elijah’s Promise, a community kitchen and culinary school in New Brunswick, which led to a reality check about food insecurity.

“Of course you hear about it, but in America it just doesn’t sound real,” says Figueredo. “I’m from Venezuela—that’s food insecurity. People are starving to death. I learned that it’s happening here too. You get schooled once you leave the bubble of campus.”

For his installation at Harvest Moon Brewery and Café on George Street, Figueredo created a large-scale fabric canvas and used oil pastel, pencil, and charcoal to depict the busy Elijah’s Promise kitchen and all of the people who may come there for food and company—children, the elderly, young professionals, homeless people, construction workers.

“Windows can be mirrors too, and I want people to see themselves when they look at this,” says Figueredo, who was deeply moved by his visits to the largely volunteer-run organization. “I want everyone who walks by to say, ‘Oh, that’s a familiar sight. That could be me.’”

Figueredo says he was given “100% freedom” with his artistic vision. However, he admits that it was difficult working for a client, which required a balancing act of his self-expression and the role of public art creator.

“When I’m working in my studio, it’s just me and my imagination, and whatever I say goes,” says Figueredo, who works in woodcuts, mixed-media prints, and paintings. “There may be no goal or message. But when you’re doing public artwork, you want it to be super clear and you want people to stop and engage with it. I had to rewire myself and put my ideas in the backseat so that I could communicate better.”

That challenge was part of the plan, says Oliveras-Moreno.

“The opportunity to step outside of the solitude of your studio to be trusted and charged with transmuting the mission and the passion of another entity is a responsibility that I don’t think these students have taken lightly,” Oliveras-Moreno says. “We hope students in our visual arts program emerge as incredible artists but also responsible citizens, and that these skills of collaboration and communicating stay with them.”

Picturing hope
Mahsa Biglow, also a graduate student, was paired with the Esperanza Neighborhood Project, a revitalization initiative focused on a 57-block area of New Brunswick. Her installation was inspired by the residents who guide the neighborhood improvement effort, many of whom are mothers who emigrated from Mexico.

Biglow’s installation, titled Tomorrow the Sun Will Shine Brighter, is on display at Las Cazuelas Mexican restaurant on French Street in New Brunswick, a city that has welcomed several generations of immigrants from countries including Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Peru. Biglow asked several children of Esperanza Project families to draw flowers native to those countries and then created portraits of each young artist holding their work.

In the photos, the kids radiate happiness (“The smiles are real,” says Biglow, who asked her subjects to tell her jokes or the funniest thing that happened to them that week while she snapped away with her camera).

“Esperanza means hope, which for me is the other side of hatred,” Biglow says.

The portraits capture “the essence of both the immigrant story and the American Dream: that work and sacrifice can yield a better life for the next generation,” says Charles Bergman, director of the Esperanza Neighborhood Project. “We hope that people will see the installations, both ours and all the others, and feel good about the positive work being done in New Brunswick to build justice and understanding in the face of so much divisiveness and hatred.”

Biglow then had each child plant the seeds of their flowers—lilies, corn poppies, dahlias, tulips, orchids, and marigolds—symbols, she says, of the desires of the Esperanza mothers for their children to have strong educations and successful careers.

“Planting is an act of hope for me,” Biglow says. “You plant a seed, you wait for it and take care of it, hoping that it turns into something beautiful.”

Visit windowsofunderstanding.org for more information, including a complete list of featured organizations, a schedule of events, and participating storefronts.

Windows of Understanding logo (top) designed by Mason Gross visual arts BFA student Alicia Stolarz.

Second image: Food is Love installation by Enrique Figueredo. Oil pastel, pencil, charcoal on fabric. Image courtesy of the artist, 2018.

Third image: The Sun Will Shine Brighter Tomorrow installation by Mahsa Biglow, on view at Las Cazuelas Restaurant. Image courtesy of the artist, 2018.

Bottom: Portrait 1 of 7 from the installation The Sun Will Shine Brighter Tomorrow by Mahsa Biglow. Image courtesy of the artist, 2018.

Information accurate as of January 2018.