During this year’s Community Mural Institute and Fresh Paint Springfield mural festival, two murals were re-created to honor longtime educator, activist, and artist Nelson Stevens.  

The murals, originally created in the 1970s, depict the vibrancy and richness of Black life in Springfield during a tumultuous time. 

A ribbon cutting ceremony in the city opened the murals for public viewing, and Producer Dave Fraser was there to bring us the story.   

In a digital exclusive interview, Commonwealth Murals Director Britt Ruhe shares how to re-create old murals like those seen in this story. 

Read the full transcription:

Announcer: Two! Three! Alright!

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: The life and legacy of Nelson Stevens was celebrated recently in the Mason Square section of Springfield with a re-dedication of two murals that were originally created almost five decades ago.

Stevens, who passed away last July, lived in the city from 1972 to 2003 and taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst alongside Professor John Bracey.

John H. Bracey, Jr., Professor at UMass Amherst: What Nelson did more than anybody else was he absolutely refused to make distinctions among classes and races of people. Nelson was an artist and he didn’t think he could change the world if only Black people change, because we’re not the majority of the world’s population.

We had to participate in a world where everybody changes.

Dave Fraser: In the early 1970s, Stevens initiated a groundbreaking public art project that resulted in the creation of over 30 murals throughout the city. The murals promoted Black empowerment and brought the pride and activism associated with the Black arts movement to Western Massachusetts.

Britt Ruhe, Commonwealth Murals: So, this is something that didn’t happen anywhere else in the world and happened right here in Springfield and got erased over time by development, by politics, by people not appreciating or feeling threatened by the messages of this work. And so, we’re doing murals again in Springfield, and it just felt like we can’t move forward if we’re forgetting the past.

So, we were fortunate to work with Nelson before he passed away to start the process.

Dave Fraser: The two murals re-dedicated are: “Wall of Black Music,” located at one Montrose Street; and “Tribute to Black Women” at 38 Catherine Street. Both were commemorated in separate ceremonies in late September.

Among those in attendance were members of the AfriCOBRAs, a Chicago based artist collective, of which Stevens was a member.

Napoleon Jones Henderson, Colleague/Friend: Nelson’s work, my work, and all of the members of AfriCOBRA, the work was founded on a philosophy, a philosophical premise, as well as an esthetic set of principles.

Nelson’s work that you see, which is a work that is speaking to one of the basic tenets of AfriCOBRA, that is works that project a positive image of Black people. And so, those images of Nelson’s works, these two murals that were just restored, reflect that very directly.

Dave Fraser: Stevens was celebrated over the course of his life for his focus on African American culture and jazz. His signature style included bold colors, unexpected lines, and tributes to historical and contemporary iconic figures.

Napoleon Jones Henderson: I call him a fractal artist, and you take the theory of fractal math that things are exploded outward and they have an energy to pull them back into each other. So, his works have that kind of exploding power.

Paul Goodnight, Artist/Friend: Nelson was the reason why I started doing paintings that had content, that had a certain delivery that moved you, that challenged you, and entertained you. All of that was in Nelson’s work. All of that is what he instilled in me.

Rosemary Tracy Woods, Art for the Soul Gallery: He was a Black man that loved his community, respected women, respected everyone, and he made such an impact on my life.

Dave Fraser: Also in attendance on that Saturday was Steven’s daughter Nadya, who shared her thoughts about her dad and the legacy he leaves behind.

Nadya Stevens, Nelson’s Daughter: What my dad was trying to do, was to create art and make it available to folks who didn’t have access to museums. He made it free. He made it accessible. He put it right in their neighborhood. He was just so brilliant and just so poetic. And he just expressed himself so beautifully.

And he would always call me his brilliant and beautiful daughter. And I can still hear his voice in my head. And I’m just going to hold on to that.