Project aims to breathe artistic life into Middletown’s unoccupied building facades

Photo of Cassandra Day

MIDDLETOWN — The old Shlien’s Furniture Co. storefront in the city’s North End has been recast as a canvas depicting a trio of vibrantly colored paintings of Caribbean musicians and restaurant diners.

Haitian native and city resident Pierre Sylvain was commissioned by Downtown Business District Chairwoman Jen Alexander as part of a sweeping project to temporarily remake the facades of vacant shops on Main Street.

The building, at 584 Main St., is painted in a black backdrop not only to enhance the art, but to serve as a screen for future construction there, said Alexander, who also is the founder of Kidcity Children’s Museum on Washington Street.

It is just one of many such scenes being planned over the next two years funded by the state Department of Economic and Community Development. In March, Alexander was speaking to state Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, about possibly using some of the American Recovery Act funds to do such a project, since some of the money is earmarked to promote culture and economic development, she said.

At the time, there were 23 open buildings downtown.

Lesser was amenable to the idea, and secured funding for the extensive project, which is expected to bring in a multitude of community partners, such as The Buttonwood Tree and Middlesex County Historical Society, Alexander said.

The Downtown Business District received an allocation of up to $100,000 to spend on the idea as an ideal solution to the problem of many vacant storefronts. It’s a way to encourage visitors to the downtown, Alexander said.

Key to the project is creating art that is movable, so, for instance, if a shop becomes occupied, it can be moved to another location, Alexander said.

It will serve as an economic stimulus for area businesses as well as the artists, she added.

Sylvain said Alexander gave him “total freedom” to execute the project. He worked on it over the summer and the paintings went up a few weeks ago.

The first, “I love Middletown,” a restaurant scene, is a nod to Middletown’s “restaurant row” of eateries that line Main Street from beginning to end, Sylvain said.

The scene is personalized, depicting the artist and his family enjoying a meal. In the corner, Sylvain’s daughter sits at a table reading a copy of The Middletown Press, which he calls an “icon” of the city. He and his wife also are depicted.

In another, “Midnight Jazz,” four musicians fill the full frame, with exaggerated facial expressions brought to life in a group portrait based on the city’s First Night celebration, Midnight on Main, which occurred in January 2012 and 2013. “It was one of the best events I ever saw,” Sylvain said.

It is similar to the third work, “House of Moses,” in which musicians play the piano and saxophone as a female singer belts out a tune at the microphone. It is a tribute to the Moses brothers, who, Sylvain said, were “huge” in Middletown.

Middletown is “jazzy and artistic,” Sylvain said. Depicting musicians “really reflects the vibe of the whole Main Street.”

Sylvain has received a great deal of feedback from neighborhood residents, who say they’re pleased to see the faces of their diverse community represented in art on their block.

“It’s always a good thing to see pictures and yourself represented, even if it doesn’t look exactly like you,” the artist said.

North End residents and lower Main Street visitors have been raving about the three-panel installation on social media, as well as contacting the artist to convey their appreciation for his work, Sylvain said.

He visited downtown shortly after the installation to check it out. “It sends a message of joy, when there are so many people passing by. I made them smile,” he said.

“From the moment we started the installation, it changed people’s experience of walking down that block,” Alexander said. People stop in front and have their pictures taken with the art in the background, she added.

“It sparks conversations on the street among people walking past the paintings. People love Main Street and the historic buildings we have inherited as a community,” she said.

Alexander calls the project one of “imaginary storefronts. It’s not a real business ... just something to make you smile.”

“We’ve had great response from property owners,” Alexander said. “It’s really moving to see people engaged with it. I get a little thrill watching people interacting with it genuinely.”

The former furniture store is one of several buildings owned by Dominick DeMartino between the 400 and 500 blocks of Main Street. He also owns Sicily Coal Fired Pizza at 412 Main St.

Because so many of his buildings are currently unoccupied, “they were prime candidates” for art, Alexander said.

The next project, at 420 Main St. and put together by the creative team at Kidcity, will be quite different — a three-dimensional diorama of a mid-century barber shop where all of the patrons and proprietors are dogs, Alexander said.

“It’s meant to make you smile and think, and appreciate the creativity of the community,” she said.

Also planned is a series of 47 lifesize marine creatures — including a 60-foot whale, all created out of plastic, which is a large environmental hazard for marine life, Alexander said.

Middletown resident scientist and artist Kat Owens secured a grant to do the work, so no stimulus funds will be used, Alexander said. The community will be invited to take part in its creation.

The next phase of the project is to create different forms of art at DeMartino’s other properties on Main Street, Alexander said.

Sylvain is very pleased to be creating public art. “It’s very important,” he said. “If you give art a chance, it can change you and the way you think about a place.”

For information, visit The Art of Pierre Sylvain on Facebook.