Haverhill Immigrant and Origin Story Mural

Haverhill, MA

Contact Name
Alexander Golob
Project Dates
April, 2017 – December 2018
Social action and justice, Placemaking/placekeeping, Downtown preservation/main streets, Cultural Heritage
This exciting mural and placemaking project that celebrates Haverhill’s immigrant communities – both old and new – features extensive community involvement and will deliver a powerful aesthetic, social, and economic impact on the neighborhood. It will feature a massive 1,188 square foot mural whose site will host events about the stories Haverhill residents have to tell. The mural features unique paintings of 144 people from 46 families connected to Haverhill.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
The project had a handful of clear goals. They included: 1. Create a beautiful mural in a bland downtown with a technique that ensured the artwork’s longevity. 2. Develop a narrative of Haverhill’s history that included all peoples’ stories and faces - directly addressing hateful language used by some in Haverhill towards newer immigrants. 3. Ensure that not only was the final artwork representative of this inclusive and diverse community, but that the process was as well.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
The mural was created by the lead artist, Alexander Golob, who had help from five local artists. The project’s steering committee included the artist, Alexander Golob, as well as State Representative Andres Vargas, Haverhill City Councilor Thomas Sullivan, and board members Paul Accardi and Dan Chabot Jr. from the Garibaldi Club, the non-profit that owned and fiscally sponsored the project.

The mural would have been impossible to create without the engagement from nearly 50 Haverhill families that submitted photographs and stories of their origin stories.

The project received funding and material from seven large funders including: Mass Development’s Commonwealth Places Initiative, the Garibaldi Club, the City of Haverhill, the Smart Growth Alliance, Haverhill Bank Pentucket Bank, and the Greater Haverhill Foundation. We also received support form nearly 40 crowd-funding supporters. Many – though not all – materials were donated or offered at discounted rates. Support here came from Shoe City Hardware, New England Sign Company, and the Sign Center.

All-Pro Electric, a member of IBEW Local 103, helped to install the mural and drop the curtain during the unveiling.

The Tap Brewing Company offered us a vacant first-floor windowed retail location to create the panels for the mural so that people could see the art as it was created over the three-month period of creation.

The Mayor of Haverhill, James Fiorentini, and the Economic Development Department provided invaluable support in receiving permits for the creation of the mural and for connecting us with sponsors.

The Haverhill Chamber of Commerce coordinated the unveiling of the mural. Helping the chamber was a group of volunteers who organized performances by local youth and found donation foods from several restaurants and individuals representing a broad variety of cuisines. The unveiling was had Congress woman-elect Lori Trahan, the first Portuguese-American woman to be elected to Congress in the history of the United States.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
This project fits well into three clear community development strategies already under way in Haverhill. First, it fit into the downtown’s designated cultural district. Second, it benefited local businesses by creating a more welcoming and active downtown. Third, it connects with an established push by local organizations and some leaders to make Haverhill more welcoming to its newer immigrant community.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
This project was substantially influenced by the art of maiolica, a ceramic art invented in early Renaissance Italy. We borrowed colors, motifs, and stylistic choices from that project.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
A steering committee was formed with community and political leaders, the property owner for where the mural would be going, and, later, the artist. The property owner guaranteed a portion of funding for the artist’s work in designing the concept. This also signaled to others that this project had real buy-in.
This steering committee organized several community meetings to get a sense of what ideas people want to see addressed, what people see their space as, and what they see it could be. There were several rounds of meetings, as the artist came up with a general direction, then some concrete ideas, and finally, a rough draft of what the mural would look like and how it would engage the community. During this period, the steering committee secured unofficial guarantees from decision-makers for any permits required for the project. The artist also created a budget for what materials would be needed to make a mural that would last for several years.

We leveraged the initial contribution to secure funding from the City of Haverhill and the Smart Growth Alliance. We then secured in-kind donations for materials. We leveraged the resources we gathered to successfully apply to a Mass Development Commonwealth Places grant that provided significant funding with the stipulation that we raised a matching amount. We used the incentive of matching grants to raise the second half of the funds for the project, bringing on-board a handful of small banks and foundations and nearly 40 crowd-funding supporters. Throughout this process, we spoke with the press and had help from the community leaders with whom we had engaged earlier in the process.

Engagement primarily consisted of gather photos and stories of Haverhill residents’ immigrant and origin stories, hosting open houses in the street-level studio space, and working with schools to prepare for the unveiling. Again, we leaned significantly on the relationships we had been building throughout the design and fundraising process. However, we also conducted extensive outreach to specific cultural groups to ensure that there was equitable representation in the mural.

The mural is 1,188 square feet comprising of sixty four 4 ft x 4 ft panels and fourty two 4 ft x 1 ft panels. The mural took three months of intense work by the artist, the artist assistant, and a rotating group of a few select artist volunteers. The mural itself has three major aesthetic components: the large central tableaux featuring one image filled with many local landmarks, forty six panels painted as individual framed portraits – portraits were totally unique while we switched between three different frame templates – and finally, a thin, one foot border tile that is the same throughout the mural.

The panels are made of ecopanels, a highly weather-resistant material that is a sandwich of aluminum, acrylic, and aluminum. One side of the panel comes smooth and primed. This primed side is lightly sanded to create micro-incisions in the primed paint layer so that the acrylic mural paint has something to latch onto. The panels are then lightly washed with rubbing alcohol. We also set up a jig to rapidly pre-drill eight holes into each four by four panel and four holes into each one by four panel.

The paint is high-quality and light-resistant Golden Acrylic Mural Paint. Colors were specifically chosen to most closely resemble those used in renaissance Italy, for which the painting style of the mural is based off of.

The mural is then sprayed with two layers of varnish. The first layer permanently binds with the mural providing valuable UV-ray resistance and added durability while the second can be removed in case of damage or vandalism.

To paint the large image and the tiles, we created a wooden grid substructure where we could stage section of the mural. This substructure could handle six panels at it’s length and two panels in height.

The larger tableaux, which was six panels wide and three panels high was painted in two segments on the staging through grid process. The first two rows of panels were inserted onto the staging. Once painted, we removed one row of painted tiles and inserted the unpainted tiles to complete the tableaux.

For the smaller frames, we created three master copies. These were measured and designed by hand and very time consuming. We then developed a time-saving process for creating the frames involving a mix of manufactured circular and square templates and calipers for the inner and outer borders and then projection penciling for the more ornate central portions of the frames. The portraits were entirely created through a projected under-drawing and then painting into it.

The thin frames were painted with a series of stencils that allowed for a rapid process for creation.

Installation required two lifts and two experienced workers over four days of work. The workers drilled hundreds of tapcon masonry screws into the brick wall during cold winter days. Temperature had little impact on installation of the mural.

Finally, the mural was covered with a large, 60 ft x 40 ft tarp that was attached to the wall with screws. The tarp would be taken down by workers in lifts the morning of the unveiling.


Preparation for the unveiling began months prior when, during engagement, certain community members volunteered to help with the unveiling ceremony. With the help of the local chamber of commerce centralizing information and coordinating between everybody, the volunteer group organized food and arts showcases for the unveiling. They ensured that many different cuisines were represented at the reception – with nearly every restaurant in the area and many individuals offering donations. The volunteers also reached out to the public school system, the boys and girls club, and the YMCA early on to find ways to collaborate. This resulted in a poetry reading and art showcase at the unveiling and the integration of the mural into the high school history curriculum.

We also worked with local politicians to invite Lori Trahan, the Congresswoman-elect for the district, to speak at the unveiling.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
The major obstacles for this project ranged from receiving approvals for the project that required overcoming political divisions from people who were more antagonistic to a project celebrating old and new immigrants, convincing grant-givers that artists need to be fairly compensated for their work, and engaging the community to identify a mix of photographs and stories that honestly and equitably represented the city.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
The clear, transparent, collaborative and highly responsive process that we employed in the early stages of the project combined with early engagement with key community leaders representing different parts of the city helped to stymie any real opposition to this project. Furthermore, the design, by using the visual style of Italian ceramic art, the culture of a celebrated immigrant group, to represent people from all walks of life, took note of and anticipated possible reception to the design. We overcame convincing funders of the value of the artist by logic and politics. We provided convincing argument framing the work of an artist to seem like the work of any other highly skilled professional. We also provided statistics that make the case for the economic impact of public art. However, we also brought influential politicians and community leaders on board to pressure funders. This combination was highly successful. Finally, identifying a diverse set of stories was the one obstacle that was overcome – but just barely. Even with a strategy of specifically asking for photos from marginalized communities and reaching out to leaders in those communities, we had a great deal of difficulty convincing those communities to submit. We had even created a way to submit works in Spanish. A similar phenomenon happened in terms of lopsided representation of men rather than women because people – regardless of gender – were more likely to submit photographs of men than women. We anticipated this tendency towards including men to a degree, but underestimated it. We were forced to do a strong push in the last section of the project to collect photos showcasing women as part of the origin stories of people living in the city.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
- Plan for longevity of the work through technical research. You and the rest of the community work so hard to create it. With poor materials and techniques, the work will wear in a few years rather than in a decade or more.
- Look at the project as a political process rather than a solely project management one. You are dealing with shared spaces and community decisions. Receiving approvals, grants, and local funding – not to mention making a project truly inclusive – will require a mix of community engagement, advocacy, and pragmatic compromise.
- For larger projects like this one, set aside a budget for dedicated community engagement. To make a project successful, it needs to touch peoples’ lives – having a dedicated and paid person doing this work will exponentially increase the value of the art that you are bringing to your community.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
From this project’s onset, we were hyper-focused on creating a work of art that spoke to, connected with, and positively impacted the community. The first and clearest change is how the downtown looks. The mural, with its bright yellows and blues completely brightens the Haverhill’s main street. More than that, however, it has already helped people feel belonging in the community. The mural has now been integrated into the public school’s history curriculum since it speaks to clearly to city’s story of immigration and migration. One of the most incredible parts of this project is that it found a non-threatening language of human story-telling to make a politically conservative family that came to the United States feel newly-found empathy for more recent immigrants who often are considered with antagonism.

This mural has also helped with boosting the local economy – new affordable and market rate apartments are filling faster now that the mural is providing.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
I believe that the project was highly successful as it created what has been described by many as a beautiful and meaningful project. Reception from community members from various background have found that it speaks to their immigrant and origin stories and helps foster a connection with each other. And in terms of process and engagement, the project was successful, not only showcasing 144 people from diverse backgrounds representative of the city’s reality, but also by compelling over 200 people to attend the unveiling, collaborating with several youth groups to discuss concepts of identity and home, and spurring new actions on discussing immigrant stories across the city.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Success was measured by the quality of general reception to the visual and message to the mural, the quality and breadth of engagement throughout the process, the minds changed and horizons expanded as a result of coming into contact with the project, economic activity generated in the area as a result of the project, and the actions spurred as a result of the project.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
While we had anticipated that this would result in follow-up engagement such as integration into the public-school curriculum, we could not have imagined that our seedling of an idea for a mural celebrating immigrant and origin stories would have touched and compelled so many people to act. Property owners, having seen what can be done with a vacant space have begun discussing what they can do with their walls. Politicians, too, are paying attention – as a result of the ground swell of support for this project, the city council and mayor are re-examining ways for the city government to support the arts. We have found that this project has inspired many other personal projects. One person is now committed to creating a Haverhill Immigrant Cookbook with recipes and stories from people’s home cooking. Another is talking about a possible project celebrating the Native American community and history in the city.