Belchertown mural puts community stamp on former state institution

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BELCHERTOWN – For 70 years, the building at 6 Berkshire Ave. was part of the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded, where people considered “mentally defective” were kept in inhumane conditions until the school closed in 1992.

Today, the buildings on the “school” campus have been recovered and refurbished. Anyone walking around 6 Berkshire Ave. Late last month would have seen the proof: Chilean-born Venezuelan artist Pablo Kalaka was putting the finishing touches on what is being called Belchertown’s first large-scale mural.

Nestled in part of the mural is a smaller painting of origami birds leaving sparse birdcages – an image meant to represent this “grim” past, Kalaka said, so the community won’t forget. .

“The community came up with the themes,” Kalaka said in Spanish. “They wanted a mural that very accurately represented the spirit of Belchertown.”

The mural is the result of a partnership between the Belchertown Community Alliance and the non-profit organization Common Wealth Murals, which connects organizations across the region with muralists to produce great works of art. The building is currently owned by the city and a company, Great Threads Embroidery, is located there.

Kalaka designed the mural based on feedback from community events he has organized, including many other themes to reflect the “sense of place” in Belchertown: the area’s flora and fauna, intergenerational families and agriculture, and the town fair.

“The mural will become a welcoming gateway to show Belchertown’s redefined ‘sense of place’ to include Belchertown’s history, the evolution of the community and to display a pathway for future growth,” said said April Jasak-Bangs, Board Chair of Belchertown Community Alliance.

Jasak-Bangs said the Belchertown Community Alliance has been in discussions with the city about the possibility of turning 6 Berkshire Ave. into a community art space.

Funding for the mural came from the Belchertown Community Alliance, a grant program from the Belchertown Cultural Council, MassDevelopment’s “Commonwealth Places” grant, and community fundraising.

Kalaka’s process in creating the mural had a communal and democratic aspect. Community members came up with ideas for the artwork, which is a sort of collage of images that give a sense of Belchertown. They also participated in “painting nights”, he said, painting directly on panels which he then took back to his studio to add detail.

“It’s kind of a community mural,” Kalaka said.

Kalaka, who is based in Minneapolis, said he has painted murals all over the world. Asked about his impressions of Belchertown, he praised the people he was lucky enough to meet while in town.

“It’s very beautiful and open,” he says.

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