SouthCoast Today: Latest Custom House Square Mural is About New Bedford Then and Now

By Aimee Chiavaroli

On Acushnet Avenue Monday afternoon, people took notice of the new mural in the works next to Wing’s Court, facing Custom House Square.

One of them, who said his name is Jimmy O and that he was a scalloper for 30 years before retiring, explained that he’d had a lot of loss in his life and lives with PTSD. He stopped to tell artist Greg Pennisten of Pawtucket, Rhode Island that he was “impressed” with his work.

“If they don’t appreciate your art, I do,” he said to the 35-year-old Pennisten.

The new mural depicts a large ship over waves and a handshake in front of a red flower, with two more flowers on each side. Above the ship are phases of the moon to reflect the passing of time, part of an arched frame with embellishments.

The outlining and initial painting of the frame that took place on Friday afternoon really progressed by Monday afternoon, when Pennisten, a Swansea native, talked to a reporter and photographer before his lunch break. He’ll finish by Thursday, he said, leading up to the 3rd Eye Open Festival Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

This is the third year that this particular wall has been repainted, according to Dena Haden, a co-founder of Superflat NB. It previously featured Basquiat by Brian Tillett and Ryan McFee’s portrait of a black soldier from the Massachusetts 54th Regiment which had a revolver in a skeletal hand and a heart in the other hand. The gun had flowers coming out of it.

Pennisten’s work goes by this year’s “Winds of Change” theme, requested by Massachusetts Design Art and Technology Institute doing business as Design Art Technology Massachusetts (DATMA), a non-profit founded in 2016 with an office in the Co-Creative Center on Union St.

Haden said the theme was to connect the city-wide summer winds festival and to coexist with the “Silver Current” outdoor sculpture in Custom House Square.

The wall in front of the mural is also changing from artist portraits to a linear pattern by Tim Cole of Partner Projects Studio, an art gallery in Bourne. That work is meant to be experienced with Pennisten’s mural.

″‘Nothing without Everything ver. 2.0’ plays with the notion that our surroundings shape our experience and perception in a more literal way by incorporating illustrative depictions of some of the ornate relief elements that surround us in New Bedford’s masonry and weaving them into a panoramic quilt,” according to Cole’s artist statement.

For a period of time, Cole’s mural will provide an interpretation of where the city came from and where it is today, depicted in part as the iron harpoon-fence line breaks apart into wind turbines in the last few feet of the piece, Cole said in his statement. The details weren’t yet added on Monday afternoon.

“Whaling is kind of the obvious way to go,” Pennisten said of his mural which is in part a nod to craftsmanship and traditional American tattooing, adding that he has strong ties to folk art and traditional art. He primarily does sign painting and commercial mural work, he said.

Pennisten said he and Cole talked about architectural elements and embellishments on local buildings. “That level of craftsmanship is so high in cities like New Bedford,” he said, “because of all the migrant workers there from previous generations.”

“Both the folk art and architectural elements have strong ties to classic maritime traditions and are found abundantly throughout New Bedford,” Pennisten said in his artistic statement. “I seek to honor the passage of time through which these elements have passed as well as to actively preserve these cultural traditions for future generations.”

People have been watching his work come to life and they get to share the experience of the process, Pennisten said.

Ward 1 Councilor William Brad Markey stopped to take a photo with his cellphone, noting that he loves it. His daughter by his side said she thought it was conveying unity, noticing the hands.

“To me, that just says ‘New Bedford,’” Markey said.

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