NEW BEDFORD — A new "Love Letter for New Bedford" campaign has been launched as a way to empower and promote local artists.
With the help of Creative Ambassadors and a Creating Connection cohort brought together by New Bedford Creative, under the guidance of Arts Midwest, the project will weave stories of connection and creativity into a public narrative and embrace of the arts.
"The creative community, and the artists, really contribute to the quality of life in New Bedford," said Margo Saulnier, director and creative strategist for New Bedford Creative. "They're the ones building those connections between friends, family, neighborhoods and community members."
The idea to launch the love letter project came after New Bedford was selected by Arts Midwest and the Barr Foundation as the play space for their creative connection initiative.
A citywide storytelling project
Michael Johnson, community engagement manager at Arts Midwest, said that after chatting with artists who live and work in the city, he observed a frequent theme: love.
"We are so lucky to have creative, extraordinarily talented individuals who also really care deeply about the community that they live in," Saulnier said.
"We're also looking to target folks who aren't within our arts and culture community," said Jasmyn Baird, senior creative fellow at the New Bedford Economic Development Council.
"I oftentimes hear people think or feel that they aren't an artist, so they aren't creative. And I think through this campaign, we're demystifying that fact and bringing more unity into our community."
Decades in the making
Saulnier said that although the art scene in New Bedford may seem like an overnight success, it has been decades in the making. In fact, several programs in the city are celebrating major milestones, such as the Whaling Historic National Park and New Bedford's Historical Society turning 25 and the Star Store and AHA! celebrating their 20th anniversary.
"There's so much to celebrate here in terms of history, culture and its uniqueness," said Iva Brito, founder and executive director of Iva Brito Consultancy (IBC), as well as one of the seven ambassadors selected to partake in the love letter campaign.
"New Bedford looks very different than 10 to 20 years ago... now the little girl in me is jumping because it's the city that I grew up in and have pride for and continue to celebrate, to now have a voice in it ... it's awesome, I'm really thankful."
As a native of Cabo Verde, West Africa, Brito said she channels her nostalgic love of her birthplace through her talents. Performing and speaking throughout the country, she shares her culturally diverse heritage, calling for liberation and justice for humanity.
She was a featured artist in the women's rights anthem “Take Back the Power” music video, a partnership with the National Parks, celebrating the centennial anniversary of women’s right to vote in 2020.
Intriguing the youth to participate
The Arts Midwest Creating Connection initiative will enhance IBC's Arts and Culture Paid Fellowship Program, which engages New Bedford immigrant youth to explore their creativity and leadership skills.
"When I heard about it, I was just so excited because I felt like it was so in line with my organization that really believes that we're all artists and that creativity can serve as a process of liberation, and really remembering and owning our power," Brito said.
"Bringing everyone to the table is important to me."
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Brito hopes her addition to the project will make sure different populations are seen and heard, specifically people that are often unseen such as the immigrant youth.
"Getting multiple generations to the table and providing access leads to a more vibrant community," she added. "The more people we get to the table, the more beautiful we can create in New Bedford."
Mandy Fraser, another ambassador for the campaign is a local painter, illustrator, muralist, graphic designer and the co-founder of the Queer Arts Council of New Bedford.
Originally from Falmouth, like many in '80s and '90s, she was told that New Bedford wasn't a safe place and to avoid the city at all costs.
"I ended up moving to New Bedford and I realized that it was really not the dangerous city that people kind of made it out to be," she said. "I realized the culture of what was going on here and the art scene at the time."
Fraser stays involved and connected to her community through her work as a South Coast LGBTQ+ Network board member, chair of the AHA! Pride Committee, 3rdEyE Youth Empowerment’s visual arts coordinator and part of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee for the historical Rotch-Jones-Duff House in New Bedford.
Celebrating New Bedford pride
For her proposal, Fraser will incorporate New Bedford infamous nickname "Secret City" into a project she calls, "Secret City Whales."
"Because of its bad rap for so long, people have missed the fact that there are incredibly talented people here like musicians, artists, chefs, storytellers, historians, architects — the list goes on and on," she said.
Fraser will paint large whales fabricated out of words written in the style of graffiti. The words consist of different terms, places, mottos, ideas, and love letters to New Bedford, that she will ask people to write on sticky notes.
"I already have this incredible collection of sticky notes. They've just been awesome to read. Some of them have made me cry. It's been really moving," she said.
"I hope that people seeing their words incorporated into a piece of art will create a sense of inclusion in the arts community as well as instill a sense of pride about our city."
Helping to shape the stories and maintain the narrative and associated social media will be the writer, Steven Froias; storyteller and social media manager, Beatriz Oliveira, photographers Justin Botelho, Frank Oliver, John Robson, and Josh Souza; and videographer Ethan de Aguiar.
The Creating Connection Creative Ambassadors also include Candida Rose Baptista, Gerardo Beltrán Salinas, Cedric Douglas, Rhonda M. Fazio, Beatriz Oliveira and Julia Roth.
The start of a bigger conversation
Roth, an interdisciplinary artist and art therapist, has been working with individuals and communities for over a decade sharing art, engagement, stories and healing.
With already one mural created at West Beach, Roth will be creating two other large-scale interactive wheat paste walls throughout the city that community members can fill in as they see fit.
"Think of it as a really big Mad Libs-style letter that the public fills in," she said.
She hopes it will be a way to learn more about what people love about New Bedford and how New Bedford can love them back.
"As humans I think making time to reflect and ask ourselves what we love about what is happening and what we can improve on is critical. This is our home." she added.
"I hope that this is just the beginning of a conversation we keep sharing."
New Bedford Creative and Arts Midwest believe that connection is engendered through creative expression, achieved through growth that teaches and inspires, according to Saulnier.
In so doing, a community finds a voice that honors its heritage and allows it to be shared across generations, which in turn fosters well-being and promotes happiness. Together, these constitute the values that help create connection — and strengthen an entire city.
"We want all 100,000 people in New Bedford to have pride in their city, and that the people who live here know that what they're doing is really great work," Saulnier said.
Standard-Times staff writer Seth Chitwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter: @ChitwoodReports. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Standard-Times today.
This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Arts Midwest, arts group produce love letter for New Bedford campaign