"Empowered" Crew Gets To Work

Artist Kwadwo Adae: “If our mothers, sisters, daughters are oppressed, how are any of us free?” Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Artist Kwadwo Adae: “If our mothers, sisters, daughters are oppressed, how are any of us free?” Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Yania Padilla didn’t grow up seeing herself reflected anywhere she looked. No Puerto Rican characters on television. No boricua barbies in the toy store. And no powerful Latinas populating the pages of her history textbooks. So when she heard about the chance to trace herself into New Haven’s history, she didn’t hesitate. 

Padilla is a suicide prevention expert and poet from Stratford. Friday night, she joined artist Kwadwo Adae, two scissor lift assistants, and a small army of volunteers to outline the 14 figures that will comprise a new Women’s Empowerment Mural on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. After all of the outlines have been traced in permanent marker, Adae will get to work painting the mural, and is asking for the community’s help. 

Padilla: “I think this mural will be incredibly powerful for our younger girls, especially having a public space—a  beautiful  space where they can be outside, and see women who look like them and like their living role models."

Padilla: “I think this mural will be incredibly powerful for our younger girls, especially having a public space—a beautiful space where they can be outside, and see women who look like them and like their living role models."

“The community collaborative mural project has reinforced that we are all in this together,” he said after Friday’s session. “Creating a mural that focuses on empowering women has allowed me to better understand and shed a stronger light on the issues that affect women’s health, women’s rights, and the ill effects of misogyny and sexism.”

“If our mothers, sisters, daughters are oppressed, how are any of us free?” he continued. “Whether perceived or not, we are all connected. We must engage and speak to these times, in all the ways that we can. I have been gratefully in awe of the community support thus far. It has truly been amazing.” 

Tracing the figures marks the latest chapter in a project that began earlier this year, with an interest in beautifying the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail on the New Haven-Hamden border. After scoring funding from both the Connecticut Office of the Arts and several institutional partners, Adae held three public forums on the work in May, and then began priming the wall earlier this month. He said he hopes to begin painting early this week. 

Kwadwo Adae Studio Photo. 

Kwadwo Adae Studio Photo. 

In all, the mural will depict 14 women (pictured above), including a recently completed rendering with a Black doctor, transgender women, mother-to-be, and Newhallville matriarch Florence “Flo”  Cladwell. Thursday and Friday, Adae began tracing figures onto the wall, using a projector after nightfall. After a call went out on social media for volunteers, several showed up to help. 

Working on a figure’s legs at the far side of the mural, Padilla (pictured above) said she’d heard about the work through a longtime friendship with Adae and his partner, Katie Jones. At 42 years old, she said she has long wanted to see more reflections of multiculturalism in the state and across the country, and is thrilled about the public aspect of the mural.  

“I think this mural will be incredibly powerful for our younger girls, especially having a public space—a beautiful space where they can be outside, and see women who look like them and like their living role models,” she said. “Their mothers, their grandmothers, their aunties, who are beacons. That’s what’s happening here.” 

Adae's assistant Toni Giammona, who has been working with him on the project since its outset. With another assistant, she is helping with scissor lifts that OSHA does not permit volunteers to mount for safety concerns. 

Adae's assistant Toni Giammona, who has been working with him on the project since its outset. With another assistant, she is helping with scissor lifts that OSHA does not permit volunteers to mount for safety concerns. 

She recalled moving a lot as a kid, while her father was in the military. For a number of years, her family lived in the South, where she said the lack of representation was palpable. In her classes, no one talked about the powerful Latinas that had fought for change, forged artistic paths or led protest movements. And there was little to no hope of equal representation in popular culture. 

“It was a long struggle and adjustment to get to a self-loving place,” she said. “It’s only happened in the last three years ... where I can look at my skin, my hair, my weight, my body shape, and say I’m here, I’m beautiful, and I deserve to be loved. That’s an awfully long time. So I hope expressions such as this … they’re letting everyone know that you are beautiful, that you are loved. That you are love. Come and show it.”

That was also true for Ecinavy Rodriguez, an aspiring chef who has lived off of Dixwell Avenue since 2010. Earlier this week, she was walking by the site on her way to work when she spotted Adae on a scissor lift, and he stopped his work to fill her in on the design. She said it was the first she’d heard of it—and immediately signed on to help trace and paint throughout the summer. 

"14 women! On this wall!" Community member Ecinavy Rodriguez is sold on volunteering. 

"14 women! On this wall!" Community member Ecinavy Rodriguez is sold on volunteering. 

“I really think this is so creative,” she said.  “When I found out … I couldn't believe it. Like, he told me 14 women! In this wall! That’s really exciting, how you could put everybody into one frame and see the difference.”

She added that she doesn’t yet have children, but hopes to at some point in the future. If she’s still living in Newhallville when that happens, she said she knows exactly where to take them. 

“Looking at the different stages and different women, it’s like—I want my daughter to be something different,” she said. “Somebody big out here. I want my daughter on the wall.”

Around her, Adae mounted a ladder to to a touch-up on Florence Caldwell’s hands. His assistant Toni Giammona watched carefully, her eyes on each rung. Filmmaker Travis Carbonella rolled in with his equipment. A few volunteers chatted amongst themselves, waiting for their next assignments. 

Adae spent part of Friday evening working on Caldwell's hands. "Mrs. Caldwell has beautiful hands," he said. 

Adae spent part of Friday evening working on Caldwell's hands. "Mrs. Caldwell has beautiful hands," he said. 

Close to 10 p.m., Reginald Blakey wandered over to the site with his young daughter Shiloh, his attention piqued by a building bathed in light. Services had just ended across the street at Greater Mt. Carmel Pentecostal Church, where he serves as an elder. A resident of New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood, he said he hadn’t heard about the mural before Friday, but “recognized that something was going on” when he exited the church. 

“My thought would be unity coming back to the community,” he said after Adae gave him a rundown of what he was looking at. “That we would unite as humans, and leave all of the ethnics and the things that divide us, we’re going to move those things out of the way and focus on the things that unite us.”

As a father, he said he is also heartened by the mural’s positive message of coming together—and supporting women of color who make a difference in the community.  

“Every little difference makes a difference,” he said. “You gotta do something to make a difference. Standing still and watching things remain the same is sort of like insanity. You’ve gotta do something different hoping for a different result.”

“And adding to the community, something for the people to sit, walk by and admire, to discuss—it can bring forth an understanding that we didn’t have. It can bring forth a united front of women of all ethnics coming together, amen. Let's come together and start somewhere.” 

This article is part of an ongoing series on public art in the Greater New Haven area. For our previous coverage of Kwadwo Adae's Women's Empowerment Mural Project, click herehere and here. For more articles on public art, search for the 'public art' tag on the homepage.