Belchertown mural puts community stamp on former state institution

  • Pablo Kalaka, the lead artist, puts the last finishing touches on a mural on the outside of one of the buildings at the former Belchertown State School. Kalaka and Gabriela Sepulveda worked on the mural, which depicts images from Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The mural on one of the buildings at the former Belchertown State School depicting images from town. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pablo Kalaka, the lead artist, puts the last finishing touches on a mural on the outside of one of the buildings located on the former Belchertown State school. Kalaka and Gabriela Sepulveda worked on the mural depicting images from Belchertown. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gabriela Sepulveda and lead artist Pablo Kalaka relax after completing the mural. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2022

BELCHERTOWN — For 70 years, the building at 6 Berkshire Ave. was part of the “Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded,” where people deemed to be “mentally defective” were kept in inhumane conditions until the facility was shuttered in 1992.

Nowadays, the buildings on the “school” campus are being reclaimed and redeveloped. Anyone walking by 6 Berkshire Ave. late last month would have seen evidence of that: the Chilean-born, Venezuelan artist Pablo Kalaka putting the finishing touches on what is being called Belchertown’s first large-scale mural.

Tucked into part of the mural is a smaller painting of origami birds leaving sparse-looking bird cages — an image meant to represent that “sinister” past, Kalaka said, so that the community does  not forget it.

“The community proposed the themes,” Kalaka said in Spanish. “They wanted a mural that very faithfully represented the spirit of Belchertown.”

The mural is the result of a partnership between Belchertown Community Alliance and the nonprofit Common Wealth Murals, which connects organizations across the region with muralists to complete large works of art. The building is currently owned by the town, and one business, Great Threads Embroidery, is located there.

Kalaka designed the mural based on feedback from community events he held, including many other themes to reflect the “sense of place” in Belchertown: flora and fauna from the area, intergenerational families and agriculture, and the town fair.

“The mural will become a welcoming gateway piece to display Belchertown’s redefined ‘sense of place’ to include the history of Belchertown, evolution of the community and display a path for future growth,” Belchertown Community Alliance board President April Jasak-Bangs said.

Jasak-Bangs said that the Belchertown Community Alliance has had talks with the town about the possibility of turning 6 Berkshire Ave. into a community arts space.

Funding for the mural came from the Belchertown Community Alliance, a Belchertown Cultural Council grant program, MassDevelopment’s “Commonwealth Places” grant and community fundraising.

Kalaka’s process in creating the mural had a communal, democratic aspect. Community members brought forward the ideas for the artwork, which is kind of a collage of images that give a feel for Belchertown. They also took part in “paint parties,” he said, painting directly onto panels that he then took back to his studio to add detail.

“It’s a kind of community mural,” Kalaka said.

Kalaka, who is based in Minneapolis, said he has painted murals around the world. Asked about his impressions of Belchertown, he praised the people he had a chance to meet during his time in town.

“It’s very beautiful and open,” he said.