PITTSFIELD — One brushstroke at a time, Hope Aguilera is transforming the brick wall of an auto body supply store downtown. Her mural, “I Wish ... For a Greener Future,” now covers one whole side of the building.
Sweat paints her own face, as she works in almost 90-degree heat.
Despite needing constant breaks, this new piece of public art is slowly coming together. The mural shows Quincy Charles, a 5-year-old boy from the neighborhood, blowing on a dandelion against a backdrop of mountains.
It is the first time Aguilera, 29, has painted a mural outdoors, but she is experienced covering indoor walls with her artistic vision, like in Adam’s yoga studio Anahate Schoolhouse.
As part of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity’s Neighborhood Revitalization, Aguilera was commissioned to paint a mural with a theme born from the concerns and future goals of residents, as shown by a survey. The initiative’s overall budget is between $8,000 and $10,000.
The mural adorns the west side of the B&P Auto Body Supply Store at the corner of Columbus and Robbins avenues, a few blocks west of North Street.
“One of the messages that kept coming back was that people are concerned about climate change, green energy and making sure that especially in marginalized communities there’s an emphasis on health and equity around that,” said Carolyn Valli, Habitat’s CEO.
Valli said they reached out to local artists and Aguilera stood out for her understanding of making a local piece that conveyed a sense of hope in the future.
“She came up with the title, the idea to include locals in the picture, and what climate justice meant for her. Having a thriving garden and landscape and a diverse community coming together to make that happen,” said Valli.
Growing up in Los Angeles in a biracial family, advocating for a more inclusive society feels personal to Aguilera. “When I was young, my Mexican grandma worked in downtown Los Angeles in a sweatshop, earning pennies, slaving away for 12, 14 hour days every single day,” she said.
“[She was] exposed to a lot of chemicals that eventually contributed to her getting lung cancer.”
Aguilera, who lives in Pownal, Vt., witnessed this anxiety about climate change during the four years she taught art at Pittsfield High School.
“I think a lot of adults think it’s too heavy of a topic, or they’re worried that students will be disrespectful or not know how to talk about it, but they’re already thinking about it,” she said.
Aguilera said it was hard to see her students’ constant concern. “It’s heartbreaking to hear my students. How worried they are, saying ‘Oh, I already know I won’t have kids because of climate change’,” she said. “It’s a very big reality for them that, when they grow up, things are going to be a lot different. They’re very aware of that.”
Aguilera ended up quitting her job as a teacher to devote herself to being an artist. She has an Etsy shop with tote bags, T-shirts and bandanas featuring imagery inspired by witchcraft, herbal medicine and yoga.
Her favorite thing to do is to paint portraits. “Especially portraits and drawings of indigenous people. That representation means a lot to me,” said Aguilera, whose Mexican family has Native American roots.
Representation is at the core of the mural. To make it more relevant for people, she decided to paint local residents, especially people of color that have been underrepresented in art. “That goes back to privilege and wealth and who is important to be in a portrait, and has the money to get it done,” she said.
In a garden depicted in the mural, the model for one of the harvesters actually works at Panchos, a Mexican restaurant on North Street. Another harvester lives across the street from the mural and has been in Pittsfield since the 1980s. The scooter-rider works at the barbershop down the road.
“It was important to me to engage the local community and not just paint random people. That’s what’s magical about art. It reflects the times and the people,” said Aguilera.
The artist has been receiving a warm welcome from residents and people driving by. “People are constantly honking at me, giving me a thumbs up or telling me that it’s a blessing and they appreciate it,” she said.
Charles, the boy who is painted, has also given her his approval. “He said that he loved it and it looks like him, and that he likes making wishes on dandelions,” said Aguilera.
Aguilera said that there is a Native American belief that people should be living in a way that is mindful of the next seven generations.
Today, she hopes people can think about the generation immediately after them. “[Think about] what we are going to give them and what kind of world that they wish for,” she said. “They wish for clean air to breathe. Food, non-toxic food, that they need to garden with. Fresh food and a healthy landscape.”