The mural painted by May Li and Aneekah Uddin, and sketched by Keneane Igu and Cali Garzon, is almost complete. Its placement on a school route has raised concerns.
JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS/ STAFF

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

The 18-year-old Chestnut Street muralists said it was all a misunderstanding, but one they say has kept the conversation on gun violence going.

As the two girls painted under the trestle last Thursday, Aug. 22, what some described as “heads blown off” was actually flowers on the Chestnut Street mural. The painters were newly-graduated Montclair High School students May Li and Aneekah Uddin.

“It wasn’t finished,” Uddin said. She is taking the criticism in stride.

The “exploded heads” were actually the outlines of the flowers not yet painted. 

Begun in May, the mural depicts six student silhouettes — three with bullseyes, three carrying backpacks with flowers growing out of them, all with their arms raised above their heads, above the words “Never Again.” The flowers are supposed to reflect the innocence of childhood, said Uddin while on Thursday she painted the mural, which is mostly finished. There are no guns, no blood and no gore in the finalized version of the mural, they said.

The flowers are supposed to reflect childhood innocence. JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS/ STAFF

But Montclair resident Ari Laura Kreith, the artistic director at Luna Stage, created a Facebook post‎ expressing concern with the location of a piece of public art that she says did not have any community dialogue prior to its being painted. Kids pass by the trestle everyday on their way to three area schools — the Montclair Cooperative School, on the corner of Chestnut and Forest streets; Renaissance Middle School, on the corner of Chestnut and North Fullerton Avenue; and Montclair High School, on the corner of Chestnut and Park streets.

“I’m concerned about the impact of walking through this gateway to school every day, and seeing themselves portrayed as targets and victims. Many people, some maybe victims, walk this path as well. How will it affect them?” Krieth said.

Her post garnered 390 comments and brings to light what parents and children living in the 21st century are dealing with — the fear of school shootings. And that is exactly the mural’s purpose, said Li and Uddin: to spark dialogue. 

But the mural also raises another concern — community input when public art about controversial issues is installed.

Some say the mural reflects a reality that our kids face every day, while others say it goes too far. Kreith, an artist herself, believes in the students’ freedom of expression, but argues public art should have public discourse.

Councilwoman and EDC member Renée Baskerville said the committee didn’t approve or disapprove of the sketches because the final version was decided with input from the MHS administration and the art teacher. 

“The property belongs to NJ Transit. We greeted, with enthusiasm, the decision of NJ Transit some years ago to offer this space for free expression,” she said. 

But there were some concerns raised about the subject matter. “We shared some concerns about the potential impact of the gripping images on 3- and 4-year-olds and other young children who are walked to school under the trestle.” 

The EDC also acknowledged the students for “the free exercise of their protected political speech and their activism,” she said.

Li and Uddin said although Montclairites lead a safe, sheltered life, some neighboring Essex towns have high incidents of gun violence. Among New Jersey children up to the age of 17, firearms contribute to more deaths than heart disease, influenza and pneumonia, respiratory distress, or bacterial sepsis, according to the Giffords Law Center, a public interest law center promoting gun control. In 2019, there have been nine mass shootings — of four people or more — in New Jersey according to gunviolencearchive.com.

Students also experience monthly lockdown drills in school, which they said are a constant reminder of gun violence.

THE ORIGINAL MURALS

There’s also gun violence in Montclair’s history. While the mural the students painted is in response to the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting, the original murals under the trestle reflect two previous incidents involving guns closer to home.

The students installed their piece over another mural, painted in 1997, which had served as a memorial to a fourth-grader whose mother committed suicide after she shot the fourth-grader and her sister, said Uddin. The fourth-grader’s best friend was Montclair resident Sande Friedman, who wanted a tribute to her good friend, and suggested a mural painted by community members. 

Li and Uddin reached out to Friedman, now in her early 30s, with their plan for a new mural, which they said was met with a bittersweet reaction. The mural, 24 years old and flaking away, stated “No more guns,” “Ban guns” and “End violence” — the same message the students are trying to convey today. Uddin said Friedman acknowledged that the 1997 mural was faded and chipped and gave the students her “blessing,” though she was sad to see it go. 

On the other side of Chestnut Street under the trestle is another mural memorializing the 1995 post office shooting in Watchung Plaza that left four dead. Glenfield student David Kaplan painted that mural, “We all hold it up together,” in honor of those victims and all those affected by gun violence.

Li and Uddin had planned on doing both sides, but seeking the approval of NJ Transit, which owns the trestle, took more than a year, they said. And Uddin is off to Indonesia for a gap year before attending school at Princeton, while Li is headed to Wellesley College.

The mural that the Montclair Republican Club seeks to replace with “another viewpoint” on gun control.
JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS/ STAFF

Another mural, another viewpoint

Now Montclair Republican Club members want to commission an artist to install a mural over the one across from Uddin and Li’s with “a different viewpoint,” said Montclair Republican Club President John Van Wagner.

“We feel there should be equal time for another viewpoint,” he said about the mural that would convey the Second Amendment — the right to bear arms.

“Nobody wants tragedy or violence. But there are differences of opinion on this. The message will convey the rights enshrined in our constitution,” Van Wagner said. 

Club members are expected to meet with NJ Transit next week. Van Wagner said they have an artist in mind and the mural would probably reflect a historical event.

“In today’s political and media environment, when so many are hesitant to tackle important issues in the public square, NJ Transit has opened up endless opportunities for citizens to leverage NJ Transit property to promote critical political viewpoints encouraging debate and discussion,” he said.

Both NJ Transit and Montclair’s economic redevelopment committee received sketches of the student’s mural, the students said.

A NJ Transit spokesperson said that NJ Transit supports anti-violence messages. “NJ Transit approved the mural project, led by a group of Montclair High School students to depict an anti-violence message,” the spokesperson said.

Councilwoman and EDC member Renée Baskerville said the committee didn’t approve or disapprove of the sketches because the final version was decided with input from the MHS administration and the art teacher. 

“The property belongs to NJ Transit. We greeted, with enthusiasm, the decision of NJ Transit some years ago to offer this space for free expression,” she said. 

But there were some concerns raised about the subject matter. “We shared some concerns about the potential impact of the gripping images on 3- and 4-year-olds and other young children who are walked to school under the trestle.” 

The EDC also acknowledged the students for “the free exercise of their protected political speech and their activism,” she said.

The Montclair BID is also on a campaign to solicit artists for a mural project throughout the downtown.

Interim BID Director Jason Gleason said a jury of local art professionals will score all submissions. The only restriction that has been placed on the subject matter is that all submissions need to reflect the theme of “Love Montclair.”