W. Church St. Unity Mural
By Megan Padilla; featured photo by Chad Baumer
Orlando activist Jennifer Desire is featured on the mural envisioned by Maureen Hudas that embodies the quote, “All love seeks unity.” The mural was painted by a team of artists and apprentices and is located on Interstruct’s future headquarters at 814 W. Church St. in the Parramore Heritage Neighborhood in downtown Orlando. Photo by Chad Baumer
The Healing Power of Art
Few words excite Orlando artist Maureen Hudas more than, “I’ve got a wall for you to paint.”
The timing was perfect when Interstruct CEO Ryan Young called Hudas in mid-June to ask if she was interested in creating a mural on the street-facing wall of a 1940s warehouse in Parramore that is pegged to become the architect-developer’s new headquarters.
Employed by one of Orlando’s big scenery shops that help transform our theme parks into world-class attractions, Hudas was at home with plenty of free time due to COVID-19, while still being paid. Feeling restless in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Hudas recognized the call from Ryan as an opportunity to do something.
The Power of Seven Women
Hudas immediately called her longtime collaborator Christy McCutchen with whom she aligns on political, social justice and feminist issues. “Let’s get this girl team together!” the two agreed, hatching a plan to bridge their experience to younger artists who had never done something like this. The design ideas developed around the concept of unity. “I wanted to honor someone in the community,” says Hudas. “I didn’t want this to be another memorial. I wanted to do something light and hopeful.”
As they put out feelers on social media in search of young female artists who were interested in learning about working on a large scale project like this, they also brought photographer Shaina DeCiryan into the fold. “Everything she does has an artistic approach and we wanted her to be a part of this,” says Hudas. Soon, they had their final group of seven, including their muse.
The artists who answered the call were high school senior Zoe Gainy, a digital animator and water colorist; recent UCF graduate Sabrina Dessalines who mostly paints in acrylics; and high school freshman Avery Krowl, a developing artist whose father is well-known street artist Dolla Bill.
The muse came in the form of community activist, 25-year-old Jennifer Desire. She’s a Boss Lady with her own event production company, Fusion & Co. which caters to the growing music scene in Orlando. But Desire is also well known as a committed activist who feeds the homeless in Parramore, leads BLM protests in Orlando and gives voice and support to victims of sexual violence. Fortuitously, when Hudas reached out to her to be honored on the mural, Desire said yes.
A Mural Takes Shape
The first time the public had a taste of this mural was from outtakes at the photo shoot with DeCiryan behind the lens and Desire in front of it. Rich, ethereal images emerged of bare-shouldered Desire, hair wrapped elegantly in a scarf, hands cupped around an imaginary dove. This is the frame around which the entire mural was designed.
Desire describes a softness to the experience that began from a place of vulnerability.
“It was weird at first,” recalls Desire. “I don’t know these people and they are going to take pictures of me. But Shaina and I were having our own conversations about our worlds and she’d show me how different light worked with my skin and I felt comfortable. And then the others came in and we talked about Maureen’s plans. A lot was happening. But I felt safe and welcomed.”
Adds DeCiryan, “Most people aren’t comfortable in front of the camera, but Jennifer had inner self confidence and just went with it. She listened to directional cues as Maureen shared her and Christy’s vision for the mural and worked out where the hands could go for the birds.”
The idea was to put Desire at the center of a circle. “With no beginning or end, it symbolizes unity,” said Hudas. Birds are another element she included. Doves for peace. Ravens for death.
Gainey’s grandmother accompanied her to the studio that day. Says Gainey to the group, who has gathered on Zoom for this interview, “She didn’t stop speaking about you all for a week. `OMG, these beautiful ladies, these beautiful artists.’”
“There was something about having all the female energy there,” says DeCiryan, who was very pregnant at the time, while also managing the challenges of an indoor shoot in the age of the pandemic. “It all ended up flowing so well.”
“I always wanted to see how artists plan out a mural,” says Gainey, adding that she was amazed by all of Maureen’s sketches and the math to work out proportions. “When she sent us the mock up after the photoshoot, it was jaw dropping. I was like, `Wow, we’re really going to do that!’”
Let the Painting Begin
Part of Hudas’s intention was to teach younger artists how a large-scale mural is made, from concept to final brush stroke. “I wanted to instill in the women that it’s a lot of physical work,” she says, underscoring the three carloads of carts, compressors, hoses, ladders, drop cloths, paint cans and other tools to set up the job site.
Another factor was working outside in the brutal Florida summer heat from start to finish. The light blue primer coat was laid down on July 12 and the final brush stroke applied on August 26 (the same day that DeCiryan gave birth to her daughter). “To be outside working in the elements and this as your first endeavor is pretty bold,” says Hudas, addressing the experience of Krowl, who was 14 at the time. Krowl was not available for this interview.
Hudas and McCutchen knew they wanted to create a hopeful message. Though not written on the mural, the artists’ underlying mantra was, “All love seeks unity.”
“We consciously selected colors to evoke good feelings,” says Hudas, who also highlighted how the circle itself — a line without a beginning or end — represents unity. At its center is Jennifer, holding a dove, representing peace and innocence, in her open hands. Geometric gold lines throughout the background are symbolic of a bird cage, “but the birds are not encaged.” The raven represents lost souls and death — a subtle message. “But they are also talking birds,” said Hudas, “and the symbol of introspect and wisdom.”
Connecting with the Community
Working in the neighborhood for nearly seven weeks brought many unexpected gifts. “We talked to tons of people from all walks of life,” says Hudas. “That is part of a community mural. To be out there, to put something into the community. For art to be a bridge so you can have conversations with people you wouldn’t normally get to talk to. That’s almost one of the best parts about doing the mural.”
McCutchen recalls a man who shared with her a spiritually significant story in his life where doves were symbolic to him of love and peace. He had asked about what they meant in the mural. “It was so meaningful that he was able to bring his life experience into that conversation.”
Gainey and Dessalines also enjoyed the social aspect. “When people come and say, the mural is beautiful. Or share stories with us about their life or their art,” says Gainey, “it was so refreshing and healing for me.”
“Ditto,” from Dessalines.
Once Desire’s picture was added, the crew never missed an opportunity to share her story with onlookers. Says Hudas, “I told everyone. This is Jennifer Desire. She lives in Orlando, and does amazing things. She is a leader.”
“Murals are often just a cool artistic image,” says DeCiryan, “but I’ve never seen a mural of a local person who is relevant to our community.”
McCutchen reflected that having a real person as a component facilitated some of the sharing that happened. “You’re sharing your story, so I can share some of mine.”
“It was cool to be in that space where it did feel like a community,” she says, referencing the Interstruct building at 814 W. Church St, just a block from Orlando Soccer Club’s Exploria Stadium. “It’s not so public as downtown, with people coming and going, so we’d see the same people everyday. It was really special.”
Gainey recalls the ultimate compliment. “One lady who came up to Maureen and me and she sat us down and told us her story and said, “This is beautiful. You really did the street up.”
City commissioner Regina Hill also took note, stopping to ask about the project. “What is this? This is amazing. I want to hear all about it,” recalls Hudas, who credits Hill for the subsequent Channel 9 news segment that aired on the day the mural was completed.
Who is Jennifer Desire?
Outside of her “day job,” running her own business, Desire has been feeding the homeless in Parramore and other places for years. “I have to do it on the sly,” she says, “since you can’t physically feed homeless people in Orlando without getting fined or hassled by the cops.” She does it in stealth mode, distributing maps in advance to show people where she’ll be. “I can sit and talk with someone all day. They’re just normal people who’ve gone through a rough patch.”
Her ambitious projects around the holidays take months to plan and she leans on help from all of her friends. From putting on a full home-cooked Thanksgiving meal to providing clothes and haircuts for the new year, Desire and her friends think ahead about what people need and how to best serve them. She also creates and distributes “blessing bags” — bags with small items that people need — to distribute year round.
Having moved to Florida from Haiti in 2008, Desire recognized America’s abundance in contrast with homelessness. “How can we have so much and yet have homeless people?” Helping others began by buying $50 of school supplies at the Dollar Store and it grew from there.
Desire is also a survivor of sexual assault. “After it happened to me, I thought this is my life now,” she said. “But I’m slowly getting back to my normal self.” As for seeing her image on the mural, she sees it as a positive light. “I hope kids can know my story, that women who have been through what I’ve been through know it’s ok to still be a woman, and to feel safe. I hope it makes me relatable to people who will feel they can talk to me.” Especially, she says, “little Black girls like me who don’t have role models to look up. I’m not a celebrity. I’m just a regular Black girl who lives in Orlando.”
“What an honor to paint you Jennifer,” says Gainey. “You are a strong and amazing person who does so much amazing stuff for people. Hearing your story, I am so thankful I got to paint someone like you and meet you and work with you.”
As for those young artists …
“My whole goal in bringing on these young women was for them to have more opportunity,” says Hudas. “Zoe got credit for community service and I wrote her a letter of recommendation for her college applications,” she says. “Sabrina blew up Twitter and took advantage of this opportunity to build her social platforms. She has way more followers now for her own art and people are buying her work, which will help her pay for grad school.”
My very first mural project collaborated with an all female crew. She’s located at 814 W Church St Orlando, FL pic.twitter.com/bfmZl1phi3
— Fine Artist 🎨 (@sabribri_933) August 26, 2020
“A lot of people are hitting me up,” says Dessalines, “asking how they can be part of this. They are sending ME their portfolios,” she says in amazement.
Gainey adds, “my VPA (visual and performing arts magnet school) classmates are all asking how they can do something like this, too.”
Beyond tangible payoffs for the young artists, they both credit the experience for expanding their skills and knowledge. Gainey had never worked with latex and solid paints before, but even more, she notes, “I learned how to make connections with people. How other people live. How hard working other people are. I learned how amazing it is to be able to provide something beautiful for people and for a community.”
Dessalines credits the project with helping her grow as an artist. “I’ve always been self taught, never really had teachers. This was definitely a learning experience and if I ever have the opportunity to do something like this again, I have the confidence to take it on.”
Gainey says she wants to be an animator. “My dream is to add more diversity to TV and movies.
When I was little, one of my fave superhero characters had natural hair, and midway through the series they changed it to straight. I want to prevent that soul crushing thing for other young girls and boys. Having this piece in my portfolio to show colleges is a really big boost to establish that direction for me.”
“I am so grateful to these beautiful ladies and to be able to create this beautiful project. It has helped me in more ways than I can ever explain,” says Gainey.
“I hope this is like a pebble in water with a big ripple effect,” says Hudas. “I hope this inspires more projects like this around town, that it inspires other artists to bring on someone to mentor.”
The “Unity” Mural Team
Maureen Hudas / designer and lead artist
Christy McCutchen / lead artist
Shaina DeCiryan / photographer
Jennifer Desire / model