On The Wall: chatting with artist Jon Allen
Like many other post-industrial towns, there is huge upside potential for the city of Fitchburg. So how does a city rebuild itself with all of the layers of complexity cemented over the years? For one, it takes serious, sleeves rolled up, street smarts kind of folk to be the fundamental drivers. In Fitchburg, there are many who have taken the wheel at working for change.
We recently chatted with one of these folks, Jon Allen, who is bringing color and life on the largest scale, beautifying downtown Fitchburg, one mural at a time. Talking with Jon was a total treat as he shared his life experiences. From growing up in Ashburnham to being part of the New York art scene, from starting all over again to ultimately teaching high school. He is the person that you are pumped to sit next to at a dinner party.
Sitting in Strong Style Coffee, looking at the massive mural he painted in 2014, Jon shared with us a bit about his work and hopes for the city of Fitchburg:
SOTB: Tell us about the Nashua River Mural…how did this all come about?
JA: I was brainstorming with Jerry Beck [artist, founder of the Revolving Museum] about how to get a big public art project done. He brought up Marion Stoddart and told me about her story, and I was struck with inspiration. We were sitting in here actually talking about it, and I saw the building across the street. It was along the river, and connecting to the work that she did, I just thought it was perfect subject matter. You know, Fitchburg has a really rich history but it gets lost in the modern mess of the situation. People really get down on the city. So I really want to depict subject matter that celebrates its more positive times.
SOTB: You come up with the idea, and then what happens? How do you start something from nothing like that?
JA: I went to the building owner, he was cool with it. I said, “This is Marion Stoddart, this is what I want to do.” We had the support of the city and the mayor at time. It wasn’t a hard sell.
SOTB: That’s amazing, that it just worked out like that.
JA: Yeah, well then, we got paint donated from Aubuchon Hardware. I bought a lot of materials and designed it myself. We got a lift donated from the fire department toward the back end of the job.
SOTB: How about Marion, did you talk to her?
JA: Marion was great! She was very humble. At first, we wanted to call it the Marion Stoddard Mural, but she wasn’t into it. She said that she was one person, one of thousands who helped that effort.
SOTB: Why did you feel that Fitchburg was the place to bring in art?
JA: There are a lot of things, it’s post industrial, it has a drug problem, its economy has been really bad, it has several negative factors working against it. So people tend to identify it with the negative associations. One of the ways you can improve or change that is by brightening up the environment. Through public art, showing people that there is a positive history here. When you do these projects, you have people who are living on the streets coming up to you and ask about the work. You can see their eyes light up and change when something positive is being done, even if it is just for a moment.
SOTB: So then, POW WOW came up in 2016 in Worcester, which is such a cool opportunity, how did that go?
JA: A friend of mine gave me a nice introduction to Jasper Wong [founder of POW WOW] and I showed him my work. He then invited me as a local artist and gave me a wall. I was really concerned about the surface; it was this weird 1960’s style brick where it’s all broken. I had never worked on a surface like that, and I was legitimately concerned. It took me about a week to complete, and it was a great time.
SOTB: Was it a Cassowary?
JB: A Hornbill.
SOTB: That was the summer of 2016, and you really stayed on this path of big murals. It seems like you really like this medium.
JA: Yes, I like the fact that it is public and people can see it. It’s like a billboard of your work and hopefully can lead to other possibilities. I like the public nature of it, engaging with the community and having it be accessible to people.
SOTB: When you do these large scale pieces do you feel different or transformed afterwards?
JA: Sort of, I wish I could do this full time, I lose weight. I get in really good shape (laughing).
SOTB: It’s like a new cutting edge weight loss program (laughter).
JA: Yeah, (laughs) it is crazy, when I did the Iver Johnson mural, we didn’t get approved until the end of summer. I was starting school again, so I hired a friend from Rochester, and we got it done in 11 days.
SOTB: How did you choose Iver Johnson?
JA: I was talking to Peter Capodagli, who runs the Boulder Art Gallery. His knowledge of the history of this area is incredible, and he recommended Iver Johnson to me. The building that it’s on used to be a bike shop. Which is actually where I bought a bike when I was a twelve. I’d been aware of the history, between Longsjo and Iver Johnson, and that’s what inspired me to do him.
SOTB: The coloring is really good. It is a poignant piece that celebrates a face of historical Fitchburg with such a modern vibe.
JA: Thanks, I wanted to do something that is bright and had some dynamic graphic visuals. It is kind of a collage of these elements of the bike.
SOTB: Another work of yours is the postcard looking mural, on Prichard Street.
JA: That was commissioned by NewVue. They are doing a lot of great work in the community.
SOTB: Is there another project you would like to do in the city?
JA: Definitely, it’s really just finding the wall. The Iver Johnson mural was supported by ReImagine North of Main, which is an initiative that is working on community engagement. One of the things they are trying to do is incorporate more public art.
SOTB: If you think about it, you see a problem and then go to the people with the solution. It is rather entrepreneurial of you.
JA: Thanks. I would love to celebrate the history of all these sort of bygone era towns. It makes for really interesting subject matter.
SOTB: How do you think art can help?
JA: It can change the environment, it changes people's attitudes, it makes it more inviting and gives an identity. I think it will help other creative people come out of the woodwork. My hope is for Fitchburg to get recognized as being very friendly toward these types of projects and bring in other artists.