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When Art Forms a Community: Saint Peter’s Beautifies Jersey City Through Mural Arts Program

Alberto LaCava’s contribution to a JCMAP Youth Program Mural.

For nearly 150 years, Saint Peter’s University has been located in Jersey City, situated to the west of the Hudson River just across from New York City. In the past few decades, Jersey City has experienced a revitalization, which has given way to a number of positive changes including the growth of a blossoming art scene.

The city is home to art galleries, art spaces, art schools, dance companies and more. In 2013, the Mayor’s office took the city’s appreciation for art a step further when it established the Jersey City Mural Arts Program (JCMAP). JCMAP, funded by a Clean Communities Grant, links established and emerging local, national and international mural artists with property owners, as part of an innovative city-wide beautification program. The program reduces graffiti, engages local residents and is transforming Jersey City into an outdoor art gallery.

Saint Peter’s University has been involved with the Jersey City Mural Arts Program in more ways than one. In October 2017, the University unveiled a commissioned mural on its campus that was developed in an effort to celebrate the legacy of the arts at Saint Peter’s. The piece was created by world-renowned Italian street artist Peeta on an outer wall of Rankin Hall, which houses the Saint Peter’s University Department of Fine Arts. The façade of Rankin Hall was selected to give the fine arts building a better visual identity on campus, and the goal of the project was to inspire students and the community with original art.

The mural was just one of the inspirations for Saint Peter’s students to get involved with JCMAP.  When Stardaysha Santos ’21 took notice of her classmate, Alberto LaCava’s ’21, artistic skills in class one day,  she recommended that he consider becoming a part of the JCMAP Youth Program. The Youth Program offers an annual opportunity for artistically-inclined young adults to create a piece under the direction of professional mural artists. The participants learn about everything related to mural art, from concept development to design enlargement to spray paint techniques. Santos had already been involved with the program for a number of years and was eager to share it with others LaCava was beyond excited about the prospect of being paid to do something he loved. “I felt like an angel was sitting next to me when Stardaysha shared this opportunity,” he said.

In the summer of 2019, LaCava  (a communication and visual arts double major and a music minor) was hired for a position to work on a mural with the Youth Program. He was hired with a group of more than 20 individuals under the age of 24. The group was diverse in background and age. While he worked with other college students like Santos, he also worked alongside artists as young as 14. “The program is based not on age, but talent,” LaCava explained. “We all worked together to practice and give each other feedback.”

Alberto LaCava’s contribution to a JCMAP Youth Program Mural.

LaCava’s cohort operated under the direction of professional mural artists Duda Penteado and Catherine Hart. The result of this group’s efforts was the longest mural in Jersey City, entitled, “Heroes of the World.”

“For the project, we were all asked to identify individuals who had a positive impact on the world or those who overcame negative circumstance to ultimately benefit their community,” LaCava explained. “Then we decided as a group who would be featured on the mural.”

For his portion, LaCava selected Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo because of the cultural impact that both individuals made on the arts and sciences. “The fact that we still think of them and their work frequently demonstrates the influence that one mind can have on the world,” he said.

Other heroes featured on the mural include Nelson Mandela, Frida Kahlo, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Muhammad Ali, among others.

The final outcome and the experience itself proved to be extremely satisfying for LaCava. The program provides an excellent opportunity for young people to get experience working in the art world but, to him, the most rewarding part was hearing the feedback from the surrounding community while the group was working together. “It was crazy how many people would comment on the project and would ask us questions as it progressed. We even had community members stopping their cars and lining up in awe. I truly felt like we had the whole community supporting us.”

Although LaCava has a busy schedule as a double major and as a singer, songwriter and member of the band, We’ll Be Fine, he still hopes to work on another mural project this upcoming summer. He will interview for the program again this May.

Eugene J. Cornacchia, Ph.D., president of Saint Peter’s University, believes that the city’s embrace of the arts has benefitted the University in a number of ways. “The rich tapestry of art and culture that exists in Jersey City adds tremendous value to the Saint Peter’s experience,” he said. “We take pride in our relationship with the city and our work with JCMAP is an excellent product of that connection.”