HARTFORD — When Michael Rice moved to Hartford to pursue a career as a working artist, there was one blank mural canvas that he knew he wanted to paint: the side of the apartment building facing Interstate 84 West just as the highway enters downtown.
Five years later, Rice and his artist assistants are slowly revealing a mural on that 18-story structure on Morgan Street. The image of a boy releasing fireflies from a mason jar is meant to send a message of taking the time to experience the world with wonder as children do. It also comes as the city, like so many across the country, seeks renewal in the aftermath of the pandemic.
The artwork, believed to be the tallest between New York and Boston, is one of a half dozen, large-scale murals being funded this year by the Greater Hartford Arts Council in downtown. The “Hartford Creates” program, a partnership with the city and RiseUP for the Arts, will invest $750,000 in pandemic relief funds over three years in public art.
“We want all the murals that are created through this project to be inspiring,” Shelley D. Best, the council’s chief executive, said. “We want people to feel like, ‘Wow,’ there’s hope in our city. That’s really how we’re investing in projects that will give an uplift to our whole region as people come through.”
The program also emphasizes Hartford as the creative destination that it has always been, Best said.
Large-scale murals also are planned this for what has come to be known as the “Big Red Wall,” the rear of the Church Street Garage; 20 Church St., the “Stilts Building,” where it faces Main Street; the Heaven Skatepark; and at least two others. In addition, there will be multiple smaller, mini murals, designed for Instagrammable moments, some along the XL Center.
A self-guided, downtown walking tour of the murals is planned by late summer. This fall, images of artwork by local artists also could be projected on the rear side of the Frontier building on Trumbull Street. The projection gives exposure to artists who aren’t necessarily muralists, the arts council said.
The murals will add to a growing number in downtown and throughout the city. Rice’s as-yet unnamed mural will surpass what had been the tallest mural in the city: a girl watering flowers, at the corner of Pearl and Ann Uccello streets.
Rice said his inspiration for the mural wasn’t necessarily the city’s push to recapture revitalization momentum dampened by the pandemic.
A child releasing the fireflies does speak to a new beginning, but Rice said the message he hopes the mural on the south side of the Millennium apartments will convey is much larger, even universal.
“Hitting on that sense of wonderment and those child-like things that we lose as we grow older,” Rice said. “It also speaks like a universal language that I believe everyone can relate to in a way. That kind of innocence that we’re always longing for, especially in today’s world, in my opinion.”
The mural’s impact can be far-reaching because it will be seen by the tens of thousands the travelers rushing by on I-84 each day, Rice said.
“I was hoping it could just serve as a reminder — like today is just this kind of crazy, fast-paced world — just to kind of slow down and think,” Rice said. “And take a second to just kind of connect those moments that feel fleeting these days.”
The boy depicted in the mural is modeled after 10-year-old Sam Gonzalez, who lives in East Hartford. Rice was introduced to Sam’s family through one of his artist assistants on the project, Micaela Levesque, who is a good friend of Sam’s older sister, Karina Gonzalez.
Rice said he chose Sam out of a field of other candidates after photographic studies of Sam holding a mason jar captured what Rice wanted to convey with the mural.
The Gonzalez family is excited about the project, and they hope it will have another benefit. Sam has been diagnosed with autism, and the Gonzalez family believes the mural could call positive attention to those with the condition.
“A lot of people see it as a disability, and it’s not one,” Karina Gonzalez said. “And so, we want everyone in the autism community to see it as an opportunity to be themselves. We’ve definitely accepted Sam for who he is, and we absolutely love him. It’s just the way he is. We just want anyone who is on the spectrum or just anyone in general to know that for themselves.”
Rice, 41, moved to Hartford about five years ago when he decided to make, as he describes it, a “180 degree” turn in careers.
A native of Baltimore, Rice discovered his creative talents at an early age. After attending art school, Rice spent more than a decade as a corporate graphic artist, the last few years in New York City.
“I was kind of working creatively,” Rice said. “But it really wasn’t tapping into some of the things that I wanted to tap into,” Rice said. “So, I just kind of walked away from all of it and just decided to try and become a working artist.”
Rice said his decision swiftly ended a long-term relationship because the person “wasn’t thrilled about the decision.” Rice also quickly discovered he could no longer afford to live in New York.
With family living in Hartford, Rice said he found affordable art space on Bartholomew Avenue in Parkville. His profile as an artist has risen since his arrival in the city. Last year, Rice created the 50-foot mural outside the Hartford Stage Co. on Church Street and more recently, a 200-foot long by 17-foot high mural at the Bravo market in Hartford’s Barry Square.
Rice said he had discussions with the owners of the Millennium apartments — a partnership of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC, downtown Hartford’s largest commercial landlord, and the Axela Group, based in Waterbury — about a mural ever since the partners bought the building in 2021.
The cost of the mural project is about $110,000. Hartford Creates and Shelbourne are both contributing $50,000 and the Roberts Foundation, another $10,000.
The mural is in the tradition of trompe-l’oeil, an artistic device that creates the illusion of three-dimensional space and objects on a two-dimensional surface. In Rice’s mural, the young boy will appear to be breaking away from the wall. The 3D effect will be further heightened by plans to illuminate the fireflies with laser light beams.
More than 800 cans of spray paint will be used before the mural’s expected completion in late June.
Rice’s mural also could help the image of a building with a troubled recent history. Hotels have long struggled at the Morgan Street property and a first attempt at converting the top floors to apartments ended in a foreclosure, swallowing up $5 million in public funding.
Shelbourne and Axela bought the building out of the foreclosure with plans to convert the rest of the building to apartments in an $8 million project. Soon after the purchase, the partners found their project costs soaring, pushed higher with major repairs needed in the underground parking garage and rising construction costs touched off in the pandemic.
The price tag doubled to $16 million. The project was complicated because tenants were already were living on the upper floors and fell into a dispute with their landlord over conditions in the building.
The partners say they are negotiating with their lenders and are optimistic a deal will be reached to complete the rest of the conversion. But, at the same time, the city has placed the property on its tax sale list, to be sold to pay for $1 million in unpaid back taxes.
Shelbourne and Axela say they also negotiating a repayment agreement with the city on the taxes to avert such a sale.
“The fact that we are going through with this mural, the fact that we are funding at least half of it — there’s no better way for us to make a statement that we’re here,” Michael Seidenfeld, Shelbourne’s chief operating officer, said. “We’re here for the long haul. We believe in the property and the city.”
In a statement, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said: “The city has an interest in both the successful completion of the redevelopment at 50 Morgan St. and in resolving the outstanding tax liability, and we will continue to talk with the owners of that property as we work to protect the city’s interests.”
While the dispute between the building owner and the city plays out, Rice and his assistants, including Chris Gann, work on the mural in good weather. They are suspended on a window washing-style lift, spray paint cans in hand, in view of all those whizzing by on I-84.
Rice said the accomplishment of creating what is thought the tallest mural in the region takes a backseat in the project.
“It’s not super important to me because I’m sure it won’t be the largest one for that long,” Rice said. “To me, it’s all about the art.”