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Mural of skaters bridges Buffalo’s racial divide

The well-worn Isuzu Rodeo came to a sudden halt in front of the mural being painted on the facade of Kiddy Skateland.

“Nice job,” Donnie Harris, the driver, shouted to artist Chuck Tingley through the lowered passenger window. “I love seeing things like this. Love it, love it. It brightens up the community, and makes it look nice.”

Shout-outs like this have become routine for Tingley, a muralist who has been painting outside 33 E. Ferry St., two blocks east of Main Street, for almost a month.

While the mural looks like a new beginning for the skating rink, it also marks the end of the Ferry Street Corridor Project, the yearlong educational and public art project that began with a goal of uniting Buffalo’s east and west sides. Most of the project was purposely centered just east of Main Street, long seen as a racial dividing line between Buffalo’s predominantly white and black neighborhoods.

The nearly finished mural features four pairs of skaters, and a pair of roller skates with wings accented in neon green. The images, on freshly painted purple walls, include festive streamers and floating circles, which offer a slightly 3-D effect.

Against that backdrop, Tingley drew a big boombox next to two black sisters in matching clothes, their hair up, dancing on skates.

On the other side of the front doors are a mother and daughter, who are white, on skates and looking straight ahead.

So are two Arab women in the next panel, their heads covered as they flash peace signs. Next to them are a white man and a black girl, skating away.

Tingley drew the images of actual skaters – selected from photographs taken at Kiddy Skateland – to reflect the diversity there.

“Skating is a fascinating activity, an old activity,” said Barrett Gordon, an avid skater whose skate parties at the rink evolved into an integral part of the project. His work with the project also included producing a mural with community youth on the outside of the WASH Project, a West Side laundromat.

“Skating is also a vehicle for bringing people together across generations, and across races and religions,” he said.

Plans for the mural began in June. They had to mesh with Kiddy Skateland’s wildly colorful palette of lime green, purple, raspberry and vanilla, along with an awning of yellow and red and two multi-colored signs.

Armed with a sketch design, Tingley used a projector at night to trace the skaters’ outlines. He used reference photos in the daylight to draw and paint the images, which slowly sprang to life. Community residents were invited on a Sunday to help paint background imagery.

Tingley used acrylic paint and spray paint, and paint markers that produce spray paint in marker form.

The mural fits in with two other public art projects across the street, a block apart.

Color photographs at the corner of East Ferry and Main Street present images of current area residents. A block to the east, on a wall that starts at Michigan Avenue, are large black-and-white images from 1920 to 1965. Text under each challenges viewers to wonder what they’re looking at and of the times portrayed.

Marissa Lehner, the project’s director, said the grand goal of the yearlong effort was to unite the East Side and West Side through the telling of stories on a personal, group and city level. It served other purposes, too.

“It brought art to the people,” Lehner said. “It was a beautification project, and it provided work for a lot of artists.”

The project began a year ago, with teaching artists showing students how to paint and do portraiture at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts on the East Side and Lafayette High School on the West Side. There were also summer programs.

Funding came from the National Endowment for the Arts, and later the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and Open Buffalo.

“We all know Main Street is this dividing line, but we’re seeing a surge of interest in Main Street,” said Lehner, now a teaching artist for Young Audiences of WNY. “There are a lot of wonderful things that have happened just with this project. We hope it’s a kickstart to not seeing Main Street as a divide anymore, and seeing Ferry Street as this connecting vein.”

Lehner said she sees the skating rink and its new mural continuing to help bridge that divide.