Here’s the story behind that new mural in downtown Pittsfield

August 18, 2023 : The Berkshire Eagle, Matt Martinez

PITTSFIELD — Two women are locked in an embrace on North Street, holding each other in a field of blue, surrounded by bright bunting flags and vibrant tapestries.

One woman, the taller of the two, has her eyes closed. Her expression is calm, almost satisfied. Her hair is a rainbow-like extension from her head, and is just one example of the artist’s bold use of color. Dominican American muralist Silvia Lopez Chavez said she represents “dreams and hopes for the future. She’s thinking out loud, but internally — she’s very loud, but also very quiet.”

The other woman in the painting has her eyes open, conversely, and fixed on the horizon. She represents hope, Chavez said, and a bright perspective on the future.

Together, the two figures make a statement.

“I think that subtle joy and hope is what I’m trying to communicate through it,” Chavez said.

But these two women, immortalized in a 45-foot by 30-foot mural entitled "Sisterhood" on the side of Shipton Building at 146-156 North St., are not just from Chavez’s imagination: they are a reflection of the community, she said, and are pulled right from the building’s history.

Chavez drew inspiration from the story of Mary Helen Stevens Wollison and Rosa England, two women who joined forces to commission the building of the Wollison Block — now known as the Shipton Building — in the 1870s. Chavez said the two women came together “in sisterhood” to support each other, and she considered them forward-thinkers.

“Obviously they are not portraits of these women, but they carry the essence of this sisterhood and women coming together to help each other out in the community,” Chavez said.

That’s part of Chavez’s approach — and the reason she decided to move from the studio to the streets: Community.

“I love learning about that city or that town or the community that is right in the space where the mural is going to be, because to me it means so much more to the people who are living and working in this area than me,” Chavez said. “I am bringing part of myself into this, but it’s also a mural that will reflect and connect to the community that is here.”

The mural was one of five commissioned as part of the Let It Shine! Public Art Partnership, which includes Downtown Pittsfield Inc. as one of its partners. Other murals will be painted at various locations downtown, and the goal is to have them all be finished in time for a block party to showcase them on Sept. 9.

The mural was funded by a MassDevelopment Transformative Development Initiative Creative Catalyst Grant, per a news release from Downtown Pittsfield Inc. Chavez hopes to finish hers by Monday.

Within the mural, there also nods to Pittsfield’s history, Chavez said. The bright clothing on the figures is meant to be a nod to the textile industry in town. A yellow paper airplane in the corner of it is meant to be a nod to the paper mills that once surged in town.

Steve Oakes, the owner of the building, said he appreciated the art style that Chavez brought to the project — “her aesthetic is very celebratory” — and the nods to local history.

“It took a bland, giant, blank wall — well, I guess she’d think of it as a canvas,” Oakes said. “And it has really livened it up.”

For now, though, the work is ongoing. Chavez can be found for the next few days with at least one assistant up on scaffolding, covering the wall in color as she works to fill in the rest of her stenciled design. Weather permitting, she’ll work for as long as she can each day to bring it to completion.

Chavez noted that she was given total creative control over the project, which she said led to an unrestricted vision for the mural. That’s made the process fun thus far.

“It’s magic, because then I go crazy,” Chavez laughed. “Some of my favorite murals are like that.”