NewsSep 23, 2020

Lesley illustrator leads socially distanced Mural Crew

Jonathan Lopez-Wilen ’22 returns to summer program that started his art career

Aerial of Boston Common with view of grass that has leaves painted on it to guide for social distancing.
Jonathan Lopez-Wilen ’22 led the Mural Crew in painting part of the Boston Common green with leaves that encourage social distancing. Image courtesy: City of Boston

By Georgia Sparling

Before joining the Mural Crew in 2015, Jonathan Lopez-Wilen ’22 hadn’t considered art as a career or even a hobby, he just wanted something constructive to do during the summer that would keep him from getting bored and causing a “ruckus.”

“I kind of decided to give it a shot one summer and put forth some artistic ability and fell in love with it and it ended up sparking my art career,” says Lopez-Wilen, a junior illustration major at Lesley.

Portrait of Jon Wilen in a mask
A portrait of Jon Lopez-Wilen in a mask. Image: Liz O'Brien

Sponsored by Boston Mayor Martin Walsh with the Boston Parks Department and the Mayor's Office of Arts and Culture and now in its 29th year, the Mural Crew is a summer program that employs 15- to 18-year-olds to create large-scale public art projects in city parks and on walls throughout Boston’s neighborhoods.

Lopez-Wilen first joined the crew at 16 and this year supervised the youth in what turned out to be a mural-less, but no less creative, summer.

“It was a very weird summer for the kids, but I could also tell that they appreciated being there and doing something that wasn’t boring,” he says.

While other programs were closed due to the coronavirus, the Mural Crew almost tripled its number of participants to give more students something constructive to do. The number of adult supervisors was reduced, which gave Lopez-Wilen more leadership than in previous years.

“I’m not a super social guy. It helped me step out of my social comfort zone and be the talkative person who keeps everything flowing,” he says.

Aside from taking on more responsibility, this summer’s social distancing requirements meant the group had to get creative in new ways. Instead of painting murals, students spent time creating in nature. The crew painted self-portraits with masks in the style of Andy Warhol, created sculptures from native plants in a park, promoted social justice with a temporary sidewalk installation and painted large leaf shapes on Boston Common’s grounds for park-goers to use as markers for social distancing.

Portrait in progress of Jon Lopez-Wilen. Stands with a student, both are masked.
Jonathan Lopez-Wilen and a student with a portrait-in-progress. Image courtesy: City of Boston

Vibing with the community

Boston may not have increased its mural count this summer, but creating art in the neighborhoods where youth live is perhaps the most meaningful part of the program.

“It’s bringing a group of kids together that are vibing and giving back to the community that they come from,” says Lopez-Wilen.

For the students, creating art that their friends, family and neighbors will see is a point of pride and could lead to something more, as it did with Lopez-Wilen.

Black and white photo of masked people painting over a table.
Jonathan Lopez-Wilen and members of the Mural Crew draft artwork. Image courtesy: City of Boston

After his first summer on the crew, Lopez-Wilen began taking art classes and matriculated at Newbury College where he studied graphic design. The college closed in 2019, and when Lesley opened its doors to Newbury students, Lopez-Wilen enrolled in the College of Art and Design. With access to more art classes, he realized a passion for illustration and changed his major.

Lopez-Wilen still has two years left in his undergraduate career, and isn’t sure what path he wants to take after graduation, but his experience with the Mural Crew will shape whatever art he makes.

“I’ve never been the type of dude to want to make art for myself or any personal gain. I’ve always wanted to make art that people enjoy. The Mural Crew is that.”