Mural of the story: Stuy students touch up a public artwork with a touching history

The whimsical Chambers Street mural “Alice on the Wall” was painted 17 years ago by Stuyvesant High School students shortly after they returned to school after the traumatic 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, giving the mural a touch up has been an annual ritual for Stuy students, but this year, they decided to add some new flourishes, such as flowers and flamingoes.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY TEQUILA MINSKY

Just below the Washington Market Park tennis courts on Chambers Street, starting near the Tribeca Bridge and stretching east, is a low wall and wide ledge adorned with a colorful, surreal mural — compliments of student volunteers from nearby Stuyvesant High School, who first painted the fantastical scenes of “Alice on the Wall” 17 years ago, and return every year to keep its colors fresh and vibrant.

This year, at the annual touch up event on Aug. 6, the student volunteers even gave it some extra flair, adding flowers and some pink flamingoes. But a big part of the volunteer event is getting students together and engaging with the community, said one participant who was painting a flamingo on the ledge.

“It’s really cool,” said rising sophomore Michelle Chen, who recently joined the Key Club, which organizes volunteer projects like the mural refurbishment. “It’s a great way to hang out and be active,” she said, adding that this was her first foray into volunteerism.

Michael Hu adds finishing touches to the flamingo he drew and painted.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

Fellow Key Club volunteer Michael Hu said he wanted to help refurbish the Chambers Street mural because the ledge is a locus for Stuy students during their lunch hour.

“I wanted to work on this project because it’s close to Stuyvesant and I hang out on this wall,” Hu said, adding that he like the idea seeing the results of his work in his daily routine. “Making it brighter and more colorful — it’s something we see every day.”

Stuyvesant students initially approached CITYArts, a non-profit that facilitates murals and other pubic art, about decorating the 400-foot stretch of concrete back in early 2001 and together came up with the idea of riffing on “Alice in Wonderland.” The project ended up having to be put on hold — for obvious reasons — but just two months after their return to the Downtown high school in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, students began work on “Alice on the Wall,” in what many volunteers credited as a very healing experience in a traumatic time.

CITYArts founder and executive director Tsipi Ben Haim said that student-driven public art projects like this one have a positive impact not only on the young artists, but other youth as well.

“Not only does this project offer students a sense of expression, but kids see other kids working,” she sadi. “They see it’s being done by teenagers and don’t destroy it. This mural has remained graffiti free.”

The regular refurbishment has become an annual project, with Stuy students touching up visible wear on the 17-year-old mural, which Ben Haim said reflects the sense of personal connection the volunteers feel for the artwork.

“Our Stuyvesant kids have a sense of ownership and responsibility with this mural,” she said.

Under cooling shade from a line of trees — which offered a surprisingly pleasant worksite on an otherwise blazing day — Cheryl Qian sat cross-legged and painted colorful flowers on the wide ledge. This is Qian’s third year doing the mural restoration, and she also recruits student volunteers for the project. As Art Club president, Qian knows her paints, and stresses the importance of using the right materials for outdoor art.

“We use wall paint that usually lasts to the next restoration,” she said.

But all that paint doesn’t come cheap, of course. This year’s refurbishment was sponsored by cold sore medication Abreva, according to CITYarts.

CITYarts executive director Tsipi Ben Haim with the student volunteers who turned out on Aug. 6 to help refurbish the “Alice on the Wall” mural on Chambers Street.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

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