Caleb Neelon started painting murals as a child. After an inspiring family trip to Berlin, Caleb developed a passion for street art and graffiti. Caleb’s mural is actually the first mural to grace Worcester’s walls, and helped to pave the way for the artists and works that would come after it.
Caleb’s 4-story mural on Worcester’s Denholm building was the city’s first step in embracing public art. He wanted his mural to mean something. In painting it, he worked to capture the character of Worcester, and focus on the revitalization and progress the town is so focused on.
“I’ve been doing murals since I could do murals as a terrible elementary school project.”
– Caleb Neelon
Caleb Neelon’s interest in mural art started as a child, but his passion grew and eventually inspired other mural artists as well as POW! WOW! Worcester. Caleb’s mural would be the first in a long following of Worcester murals that create community engagement while making vibrant and beautiful art accessible and free to all.
“I’ve been doing murals since I could do murals as a terrible elementary school project,” Caleb explained. While his artistic curiosity started as a child, it was a family trip to Berlin that really solidified murals as his preferred canvas. In March of 1990, Caleb went with his mother to visit a family friend in Germany, which was less than a year after the Berlin Wall had come down. While looking at the collapsed wall, teenaged Caleb was entranced by the graffiti and artwork that covered the symbolic wall. It was “very poignant,” he said.
After his trip to Berlin, Caleb was inspired to learn about street art and graffiti. He joked that he learned by painting walls and streets with bad paintings that his friends would tease him about the next day, but overall, the experience taught him how to deal with criticism. “It does breed resilient public artists,” Caleb said.
Years later, Caleb and his friend were painting a wall next to a loading dock in Worcester when a code enforcer from the city told the two artists that their artwork violated the signage ordinance and that they would need an easement from the City Manager; otherwise the mural would be considered illegal. According to Caleb, this event sparked a dialogue about the nature of murals and their impact on the city. News reporters even called Caleb to get his insight into the discussion. This was just the beginning of a new artistic awakening in Worcester.
In the Summer of 2014, Caleb was asked to create a mural for the Denholm Building. “That was the first of those big murals that Worcester has sort of become covered in now,” he said. At the time, his daughter was a toddler who loved playing with building blocks. Repeatedly, Caleb’s daughter would build the blocks up and tear them down. For Caleb, these blocks became a “visual metaphor” for hopes and dreams. This is shown by the colorful and eye-catching block motifs that Caleb painted on the Denholm wall. According to Caleb, the scene in the mural can either be someone building up the blocks or tearing them down. However, how you interrupt the piece entirely depends on your point of view.
The Denholm mural also has a broader meaning that encompasses the character of Worcester. Caleb explained that Worcester is a community that is constantly focused on revitalization. However, for new buildings to get built up, others must get knocked down and replaced. One cannot happen without the other.
Caleb’s mural received a lot of attention, both praise and criticism. Regardless of the way the artwork was received, he was simply happy that his piece provoked emotion. The intense reactions and publicity also generated further discussion about the role that murals could play in the City of Worcester. This inspired local artists and leaders to create mural-based collaborations and events such as the very popular POW! WOW! Worcester festival. Through these programs and connections, street art became accessible to the public while adding color and life to once bland walls and buildings.
At the time of his painting, mural projects were done one project at a time; however, he believed that coming together as a group of mural artists was more beneficial for the artists and the community. “… nobody likes each individual piece of public art, so if you put on one piece of public art, there is everybody’s opinion. It’s like going to an art museum and having one artwork.” As a result, Caleb was empowered when POW! WOW! Worcester came on the scene and brought variety, diversity, and a sense of community through the murals. “Worcester was the first city in New England to really go through the gate,” Caleb said of Worcester openly embracing public art on its walls.
Although it has been years since he first painted the Denholm mural, Caleb still appreciates his contribution to Worcester. He is excited by the ever-growing art community in the city. “I get a great vibe from Worcester. It’s a great city, and I love to work there,” he said.
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