In Roxbury, a mural project to help the arts flourish all around

Rendering of mural by Joe Wardwell

A rendering of one of the panels that will be part of the installation.

Associate professor of fine arts Joe Wardwell’s murals have received critical acclaim and are prominently featured inside the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and high above TD Garden in Boston. He has an approach that works.

But when he was selected by the Boston Art Commission as the artist for an installation at a renovated public library in the city's Roxbury neighborhood, he knew he wanted to do things a little differently.

Joe Wardwell

Joe Wardwell

"I wanted to move into creating something entirely new, to use my opportunity to collaborate with others and have others make new work as a part of my artistic process; to help the arts flourish all around," Wardwell said. "It was a natural extension to use my process as a vehicle to bring attention to other peoples' work in the community."

Wardwell's murals feature large, block text that can be seen from a distance along with smaller, subtler screen-printed text, laid over paintings of landscapes. 

The text in his pieces is typically song lyrics. Instead, he partnered with local poet Nakia Hill and 826 Boston, a non-profit that supports the writing and literacy in Roxbury, to have young people from the neighborhood create poems for the three murals that will hang inside the renovated Roxbury branch of Boston Public Libraries when it reopens to the public.

Nakia Hill

Nakia Hill

Hill was commissioned to write a poem that will serve as the large text and poems by members of 826 Boston’s high school age Youth Literary Advisory Board group will serve as the smaller text. The background landscapes are based from photographs Wardwell took riding his bicycle around the neighborhood.

"It's really about giving young people the space to be their most authentic selves and providing a place for their voices and their work," Hill said. "Joe didn't come in telling the students exactly what they should do. He wasn't involved in the writing process. He was really an observer of their work and was open to learning from them."

The city-run Boston Art Commission identifies civic spaces for public art in Boston, puts out calls for proposals for public art projects and commissions artists to create pieces. 

Wardwell lives nearby in Jamaica Plain and his art studio is in Roxbury. He used to ride his bike past the old public library on his way to the studio, and he has seen how rapid gentrification has impacted the neighborhood and created upheaval of longtime residents, institutions and landmarks. It was this personal connection that inspired him to apply for the project. 

Rendering of the art installation in Roxbury

A rendering of the installation as it will appear inside the library.

Wardwell was selected for the project in 2018 and began collaborating with Hill and 826 Boston in 2019. Work was well underway when Roxbury's Nubian Square became a centerpoint for Black Lives Matter and anti-police violence protests last year. The importance of the project became clear, and Wardwell began to rethink his role as an artist.

"It's a powerful time to make work about Roxbury and humbling to be able to include so many powerful voices," Wardwell said. “My values as an artist have grown dramatically in this past year. Advocating for the community that's right outside my door is essential to my work.”

The poems focus on home, and what makes Roxbury home.

“No matter how this neighborhood looks in the future, their words will exist forever,” Hill said.

The installation is expected to be completed and installed in May, along with a book featuring the poetry and photos of the murals.

Below are two of the poems that will be featured in the installation:

A Nubian Notion 

By Nakia Hill

Pride wrapped around us like an emerald necklace
High upon a Mission Hill 
projecting a bright beam of light
clinging to the essence of our communities 
Sweet scents of incense danced in front of store fronts
Sazon sounds of bachata and merengue blaring
Loud from bodega speakers in Egleston and Nubian Square
The sight of brass Nefertiti bangles found home on melanated wrists
We bow
We pray 
We cling to teachings from the Holy Quran and Bible 
We cling to teachings from our ancestors


Yup it’s Roxbury!  

By Kaylany Vicente  


      Whenever I hear this, I think: “Yup that’s me.”

      “Where do you live?” 


“ You heard me, I said Roxbury. ” 

                       “Where do you go to school?"
“ Roxbury.”   Gotta love it. Roxbury. 

             “ Girl I gotta story to tell you!”         “You know where this story took place?”


                    “In Roxbury. The adventures here are like no other! Like really.” 

“Yo where’s that cool girl/fly boy from you know?” 

                                “Yup. Roxbury...obviously…where else?” 

“Man I’m hungry.” 

“You're hungry? No problem, I gotchu. Lets go to AK’s and grab a slice up in Roxbury.” 

Ahh Roxbury man. Don’t get me stAAAted. 

Everyone wants to come to Roxbury. 

Categories: Arts

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