(c) Connecticut Explored, Summer, 2023
Mary M. Donohue
Murals are having a moment. Large exterior murals several stories tall, often portraying inspiring figures from the past, have been added recently to community spaces throughout the state. In 2000 two artists from Hartford’s Puerto Rican community were asked to create murals that would enliven the façade of an abandoned theater building on Park Street to make a positive contribution to the streetscape. The Lyric Theater and its three-story business block had suffered a fire in 1979. Located at the heart of Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood shopping district, the murals paid homage to the heritage of the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican residents. The murals were executed under two separate commissions, one for the hand-painted panels for each of the building’s windows facing Park Street, and one for the first floor’s boarded storefronts.
As reported by Steve Metcalf in a Hartford Courant article on July 31, 2000, painter, graphic designer, teaching artist, and Puerto Rican native Marcelina Sierra was hired by the Greater Hartford Arts Council (GHAC) as a Master Artist to teach and guide high-school students in the creative and technical process of designing and painting a series of murals for the City of Hartford at the GHAC Neighborhood Studios. Imágenes was a 17-piece mural installed in the second and third floor window openings of the Lyric Theater Business Block. Ms. Sierra served as the executive director of Guakia, Inc., a Puerto Rican Spanish-language cultural organization that included a school of creative arts and Latinx theater in Greater Hartford.
Many of the Imágenes panels depict Caribbean views featuring palm trees, beaches, and nature scenes. Several of the panels have motifs that highlight distinctly Puerto Rican themes. One window panel (upper left corner) illustrates a tropical flower that is common in Puerto Rico. Sometimes called a hanging lobster claw plant, or a false bird of paradise, the Heliconia rostrata is an herbaceous perennial plant. Another striking panel is a Vejigante mask made in the town of Loíza (upper right corner). Made from coconut husk, it is used in an Afro-Puerto Rican festival that celebrates Saint James the Apostle. Two panels depict dancers representing Puerto Rican folk dances, including possibly a traditional Afro-Puerto Rican dance called bomba (lower middle).
A second piece was created by painter and sculptor Victor Pacheco on plywood at the first- floor level. Pacheco was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico and raised in Hartford. The Lyric mural was one of his first commissions after he graduated from the University of Hartford Art School, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture. He then went on to earn a Master of Arts in sculpture from The Rhode Island School of Design.
According to the artist in an email to the author, the mural conveys a sense of struggle with a positive outcome. Integrated into the dynamic composition are portraits of people, a view of the globe. and imagery representing local and global events in 2002 and 2003. The firearms and missiles symbolize gun violence in Hartford and the war in Iraq. Text added to the painting by the artist reads “We are on the edge of the world” and “We will work together to survive” in Spanish. Two panels remain from the original mural.
Although the piece remained unnamed by Pacheco, the large mural celebrates Pacheco’s pride in Puerto Rican culture. Images familiar to Puerto Ricans such as the Taíno, an Arawak people who were the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida, the coqui, a native tree frog, and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a military fort in Old San Juan, are woven into the painting.
Mary M. Donohue is an architectural historian and the author of Hollywood Comes to Park Street, Hartford’s Lyric Theater, 2020, prepared for the Hartford Public Library. She is an executive producer of Grating the Nutmeg, the podcast of Connecticut history.