What was once the side of a long-vacant building on Buffalo’s East Side is now a finished canvas for a bright public art project called the Welcome Wall. The side of 751 Fillmore Avenue displays a mural intertwining the word “welcome” in 13 different languages—from German and Polish to Vietnamese and Farsi.
“One of the things we really wanted to do was brighten the place up,” said Stephen Karnath, director of Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Service. He and his organization reached out to the Albright-Knox Public Art Initiative with the idea to create an art piece welcoming the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity.
After months of planning and painting, the Welcome Wall was officially completed Wednesday.
“We wanted a public mural and we wanted a mural that, essentially, made a statement. And so, after a couple of discussions with various community stakeholders, we decided we wanted a Welcome Wall,” Karnath said.
Those involved, from community organizers to art curators, wanted to acknowledge the diversity of the area throughout history. The East Side was originally a German and Polish neighborhood, but has been seeing an influx of immigrants from places like Burma and Vietnam.
Aaron Ott, curator of public art at the Albright-Knox, said creating pieces like the Welcome Wall can be healing for a strained community.
“While certain people may have concepts about what the East Side is or is not, I think that when we start placing these kinds of works in these spaces, we do say that ‘It’s not what you think it is.’ And there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of cultural activity. There’s a lot of languages being spoken,” Ott said.
The museum hired Philadelphia-based artists Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez, experts of a special method using cloth material called “Polytab” to create large murals. East Side residents were invited to help paint the Welcome Wall’s design onto pieces of the cloth, which were later arranged and melded to the side of the building by Martinez and Johnston.
“We had a lot of people who now have their hands in the production of this work. So it’s really thrilling when people get to walk by and they get to point 40 feet in the air and go ‘I did that!’ or ‘I worked with the artists on that!'” Ott said.
The Fillmore Avenue site used to be the Copacabana Jazz Club, but has not been in use in years. The property’s current co-owner, Armad Ray, said he was “blown away” by the finished mural. As for the building itself, he said he has plans for it.
“We’re starting to trying to get it up and running to an actual jazz club or social club—something that is used to be.”