Next time you’re out and about, look up. You just might see one of the EXCEPTIONAL MURALS when picking up your Friday-night pizza or parking the car before heading into an event. Some have been around for years, others are brand new. In our jaded era, it can be hard to believe that these impressive, WELL-DONE PIECES are not only hand painted, but also CREATED BY ACCOMPLISHED ARTISTS. Read on to appreciate what’s right before our eyes: a world of beauty and meaning with Stamford’s cityscape as the canvas.
Stamford Town Center
This year, at Stamford Town Center, artist Sen2 Figueroa (sen2figueroa.com) created one of the largest mural projects in the state. He has completed murals around the world and participated in numerous mural festivals. For example, in 2018, as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Open, he was commissioned to work on eight tennis courts. While known for his graffiti work in New York, he was part of Tats Cru, a well-known graffiti crew. With them, he created art for music videos by such artists as Jennifer Lopez, Nas and Missy Elliot. He’s a big deal, and so was his Stamford project.
He was asked to envision a way to infuse new life into the 761,000-square-foot Stamford Town Center, which opened in 1982. His vision was to make the project uplifting and to use the power of color structure and cohesion.
“Our world lately is filled with ongoing battles of emotions and turmoil,” he noted at the outset of the project. “With this work I will try to give the audience a moment of sheer joy and pause in their daily busy lives. This massive structure will be filled with juxtaposed blocks of color, and the continuity of lines and symmetry will become a reminder that better days are always ahead, and that we must continue to move forward.”
Sen2, who grew up in Puerto Rico, has described his style by noting that it, “creates an entertaining dialogue between color and motion. Graphic elements, bold use of colors, sharp lines and subtle blends that collide intensely amongst a variation of textures and gestural splashes of color.” He adds that all of his work has graffiti elements, which are part of his signature style.
“When you’re dealing with globally recognized talent, it really changes the game,” notes Dan Stolzenbach, general manager of the Stamford Town Center. He added that the mural would be valued for its beautiful design, and that it would send a message that the Town Center is “dramatically enhancing the way we do things here.” For example, the mall announced plans for the new Todd English Food Hall and community events.
“The mural project symbolizes a new beginning for the mall. Stamford Town Center is deliberately repositioning its place in the community,” notes Alexander Yaraghi, business development manager for Stamford Town Center. “The mall is becoming a regional destination for world-renowned art, unique culinary experiences and dynamic cultural events.”
Sen2 Figueroa’s mural at Stamford Town Center was finished this past summer and will elevate the everyday for years to come.
Need pep in your step? Check out the vibrantly colored mural at Kiwanis Park, just steps from the Palace Theatre. It boasts an energetic candy-colored marquis that reads: “Now Playing: Stamford Downtown.” It’s a combination of electric pinks, blues, purples and pops of yellow that capture the rush of anticipation one feels moments before a show begins.
Applause to artist Lauren Clayton. The founder of Studio 162 (studio162.com), a Stamford-located boutique art and graphic design company, did the work (commissioned by Stamford Downtown Special Services District) this past June. “I was inspired to create an iconic, bold, colorful mural that would shine a spotlight on my city,” she says. “Stamford is fortunate to have so many movie and performance theaters in just a few square blocks of Kiwanis Park, including The Majestic, Landmark, Rich Forum and Palace Theatre. Together with Stamford’s DSSD, I was encouraged to explore this idea. Creating a mural that spoke to these elements of the neighborhood felt right. I wanted the mural to contrast beautifully against the brick and concrete and invite people in and through the park. As I was drawing and conceptualizing ideas, I kept thinking of the words, ‘The City That Works Is Now Playing.’ I wanted to help shift the paradigm from ‘the city that works’ to ‘the city that plays!’ ”
That imagination is in demand. Clayton—who studied at the Cooper Union School of Art in NYC and interned for graphic designer Milton Glaser and studied under Philippe Apeloig—and her studio have done work for Greenwich Hospital, Greenwich International Film Festival, Abilis and Pediatric Cancer Foundation and large-scale murals in Norwalk. In 2020 she painted Lady Liberty and Justice in the Black Lives Matter street mural (she planned it over four weeks and painted it in eight hours with fifteen other artists). The following year she did The Promised Land, a vibrant and bold mural honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. (it was painted over ten days on a building on MLK Drive). This year, she competed in Stamford Mural’s first Off-Main Experience, a mural contest and festival (her work, with five other artists, won). Clayton is earning recognition for her signature use of bold colors and cultural symbolism that speak to the community.
She says the Kiwanis project is especially meaningful because she worked on it with family and a couple of old school mates from Stamford High and Rippowan Magnet Middle School. Although given six weeks to complete the project—with Stamford-based Eastern Land Management handling the landscaping—the team had to work around the weather and primed, painted and sealed the work in a remarkable twenty days. “Creating public art really gives me an opportunity to connect with the community in real time,” she says. “My favorite part is working while talking with people who live and work in the neighborhood. I ran into several friends who I haven’t seen in some time. I also met new people who told me about their vision and personal history in Stamford. It was eye-opening and inspiring. Many people offered to help and brought us water. Juice Kings, Jerky’s Restaurant, and Verde Galerie brought us lunch and drinks on a few occasions. The kind words and gestures rejuvenated me on days I felt too tired to paint.” Stamford is a growing city, yet it remains neighborly.
She has run her business in Stamford for nearly twenty years and loves being an artist and muralist. “I am able to explore my creative visions and dreams on a grand scale,” she says. “I love that it gives people an opportunity to experience art outside the confines of a gallery space. I love that it can enhance and beautify uninspiring spaces. Immediately after painting a mural, the spaces become activated and newly valued! Murals open up incredible opportunities for placemaking.”
As for Now Playing, her place is Stamford: This mural is one of the first projects in DSSD’s larger Public Realm Enhancement Plan to elevate spaces throughout downtown Stamford. “I grew up in Stamford, and I am raising a family in Stamford. It feels good to be a part of these initiatives, which my children and city will enjoy for years to come.”
When the message is Dream Big, your mural, of course, must be sky high—and so it is with Patrick Ganino’s work at The Village—the indoor/outdoor premium waterfront campus ambitiously designed to serve the needs of entrepreneurs and creators in art, entertainment, tech, music, health, fitness, food, finance, digital and more. Touting 133,000 square feet with nearly 1,000 feet of walkable marina, it was founded by Brent Montgomery and his wife, and The Village developer, Courtney.
Ganino owns Creative Evolution (patrickganino.com) and has done mural work around the state. Most Stamford people will know his multistoried work here, which was revealed in July 2021. “This design was very different than what I usually create,” he says. “I reached out to Rosie O’Donnell and asked her to design a background that I could use as a starting point. From there I altered it, adding in different items representing art, music, science, literature, film, sports and photography.”
He placed Paula Zanol front and center. “Using a student from the Waterside School as the model, I added a sign that reads, ‘Dream Big.’ ” When The Village opened that same year, it welcomed a partnership with the pre-K-to-fifth school that provides a pathway to top independent schools regardless of family income. Philanthropic, Brent and Courtney develop relationships with nonprofits in order to connect their tenants and visitors with local programs. Waterside students, for example, learn about agriculture, sustainability and gardening with Chief Food Curator Mike Geller; attend “Lunch & Learn” programs focused on art, culture, business and more with invited speakers; have a chance to see their art on display around The Village; and pursue internships as graduates.
“Growing up around education my entire life as the son, brother and nephew of teachers, I thought I had seen it all until I met the incredible children, parents and administrators of Waterside,” Brent Montgomery notes. “It was a no-brainer to have them be in the fabric of this project as The Village is about dreaming big and then creating the platform and opportunity to turn those ideas into reality. And for this artistic idea we were fortunate to find an incredible artist in Patrick, who also dreams and draws big—really big!”
Waterside School former Executive Director Duncan Edwards concurred, saying at the unveiling that the mural “speaks to the goodness within us all.”
Ganino, who has been painting murals for twenty-three years, concludes, “I still get as excited when I start one as I did in the beginning of my career. I love that I get to create something that evokes emotion—and if I can inspire a handful of artists to follow their dream from seeing one of my public pieces, then that’s the cherry on top. People don’t realize that painting public murals on buildings is more than just the art itself. It is also an experience where you ingrain yourself into a community. I travel the country doing this work and have been in so many amazing towns and met so many amazing people. I look forward to continuing my travels and relationships through art for as long as I can.”
When you go to see Dream Big at The Village, head inside The Wheel Restaurant to see Queen Cow. The cow with royal attitude was created by Yedi Fresh (yedifresh.com), a self-taught illustrator, painter and digital artist who created the mural in collaboration with JAHMANE (artofjahmane.com), who combines social awareness, spirituality, mythology and abstract language in his work. They were inspired by the restaurant’s “wheel of life” motifs and commitment to sustainable, locally sourced and foraged ingredients. Fresh’s work can be found on walls nearby, and he is known for always working on something new. JAHMANE began in graffiti and works on murals, canvas, photography and screen printing and fashion, graphic and interior design. His work appears in galleries, museums, publications and urban environments.
Photographs: Dream big by Diane Sembrot; others, contributed; Interior of the Wheel by Interior by Mary Blank.
Bronx House and Amore
Painting on bricks outside is a challenge. Just ask muralist Sharon Leichsenring, the founder of Leichsenring Studios (leichsenringstudios.com). Thinking of the eye-catching work of the Bronx House Pizza business name painted on the wall outside in Glenville, and The Bertolli Girl painted on the inside, she reflects on how the project started. “In most cases, the most challenging part of a mural is getting into the head of my client and trying to figure out what they are looking for. Some clients are easier than others. In this case, the concept came very easily for both murals,” she says.
“The first thing that starts bringing a mural to life, particularly in a commercial setting, is a space that calls for artwork that will make a statement. At Bronx House, the brick wall was definitely calling for something more impactful than hanging some pictures. A mural goes beyond that and creates something that evokes emotion and adds personality. The particular inspiration for the mural we call The Bertolli Girl was inspired by some vintage ads that co-owner Bruno DiFabio shared with me.”
Destressing is a challenge the owners and artist shared, but in different ways. Leichsenring says it comes down to “the matter of trust that occurs when you know your client really believes your vision.”
When the mural was finished, Steve Cioffi and Bruno DiFabio said how much they loved it.
“‘Wait,’ I said, ‘she’s not finished,’ ” the artist recalls. “Plugging in my belt sander, I explained she looks too new, too obvious. I want her to look like she’s always been a part of these wall. Trust me. And they did. I gently sanded off parts of the surface, careful to avoid any bricks with chips that might take more than I planned if they broke away. After the belt sander, I cleaned off the brick and mixed essentially dirty paint water. Thinned mixtures of very watered-down paint, which I sprayed and blotted. Next, I took an old toothbrush with more dirtied color and spattered on the surface. Lastly, a wire brush to get that perfect look, and voila! There she was, The Bertolli Girl, more beautiful than ever with the patina of age to make her more graceful. Both Bruno and Steve agreed.”
What the artist saw as a technique, the restaurant owners Bruno DiFabio, Steve Cioffi and Germano Minin, initially took as an emotionally charged challenge—that is, it hurt to see Leichsenring “age” the work.
“Sharon is absolutely amazing,” Cioffi says. “The inside mural is a Bertolli olive oil photo that we really liked. The only problem was it was a clean, nice picture and did not fit with the old vintage decor we wanted. Sharon said she would distress the mural after it was painted to make it appear old. Not totally understanding what would be done, we trusted her to go ahead. When the mural was finished, it was absolutely breath-taking. My partner and I came into the pizzeria and decided we were going to tell Sharon to leave it as is. We went to lunch without speaking to her, and when we returned, she was already hard at work ‘distressing’ it. She took a heavy-duty belt sander to this beautiful mural that she had just spent countless hours making absolutely perfect. We were speechless and a little upset with ourselves for not speaking to her sooner. We left without saying anything. When we returned later that evening, the mural was totally finished, and we could not believe our eyes—it was perfect. It is unexplainable how she took a belt sander to such perfection and made it ten times better. She had the vision the entire time and knew exactly what she was doing. She is a true artist and that mural is still my absolute favorite that she has ever done for us.”
Leichsenring says the biggest challenge had to do with execution. “At Bronx House, working on a brick surface is much more challenging than a nice smooth wall,” she says. “The painting itself is also a little trickier. Brush strokes get constantly interrupted from the smooth flow that happens normally on a smooth wall.” Plus, working outside is just next-level dicey because of heat, sun glare and heat, flying and crawling bugs and working on a scaffold. The results, however, are “imperfectly” ideal. Consider, for example, the eye-catching logo at Bronx House in Stamford.
The owners also had her do work at their Amore Cucina and Bar, just around the corner. “The outside mural at Amore Cucina was access,” says Leichsenring about the challenges. “There were hedges that could not be moved, making it difficult to fit ladders into the space between the wall and hedge. It took a bit of balancing—using a baker’s scaffold to fit over the edges and ladders onto those to reach. Did I mention the weather took a turn that day and it was well into ninety-degrees with a double serving of humidity?”
But it wasn’t all irksome, she adds. “What really helped that day was how many people walking by that day started humming the song as soon as they saw the grinning pizza pie face. Nothing like a great audience to spur an artist on.”
Amore’s big moon has the artist’s signature vintage look, inspired with the song playing in her head. “It was just a casual conversation about it I mentioned the song from Dean Martin…and we were off and running with the idea,” she says. “The outside wall offered an opportunity to both automobile and pedestrian traffic—and because it would be viewed quickly, it needed to be bold and colorful.”
Despite the years, the mural still tugs on the heartstrings. Leichsenring explains how a piece retains its impact and even becomes part of the community. “It’s more than finding the correct palette and reference materials, which are important, but the core of the successful design is being able to take your wish and translate it into that emotional response which you are seeking,” she notes. “A well-designed mural or vignette should be able to evoke that response every time it’s viewed.”
An artist, a muralist and a decorative painter, she studied at the Paier School of Art, formerly the Whitney School, in New Haven, with training as a fine artist and graphic designer and experience in hand-lettering. Her work can be found throughout Fairfield County and beyond. You can see her work the next time you pick up a pizza order.
Photographs: Bronx House by Nina Barna; Amore by Diane Sembrot
We probably missed a few favorite murals. Here are more examples to continue your exploration…
Only the iconic Italian actress Sophia Loren could stop traffic at a busy corner in Glenbrook. Her face is painted at the center of a mural at Nick’s Pizza, a family-friendly restaurant that celebrated fifty years in 2019.
Artist and muralist Alissa Siegal has work around Stamford. In August 2020 her 110-foot mural was installed at the Bennett Cancer Center. Also, she partnered with Matt Conway, founder of the statewide nonprofit RiseUp for Arts (theriseupgroup.org), which creates public art with hundreds of communities and organizations. In January 2021 it worked, with Siegal, to launch Stamford Murals (IG @stamfordmurals), a public art and education program supporting emerging artists. She met with students from J.M. Wright Technical School to discuss mural making. Together, they completed the Great Futures mural at Stamford Boys & Girls Club.
The dramatic mural at the entrance of Half Full’s Third Place, at 575 Pacific Street. Bonus: You can stop in for a drink after.
Photographs: Paint Mark Alissa, Contributed, Others, Diane Sembrot;