Two new murals currently in progress in Niagara Falls bring attention to social issues by focusing on local historical events that helped shape the area’s legacy.
The murals are being completed through NF Murals, the public art initiative of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area (NFNHA), and are located in the Main Street and Depot Avenue area of Niagara Falls.
The first mural is by Abigail Penfold, an artist originally from East Aurora who recently returned to the area after living out west. Her mural will showcase the story of Martha, a former enslaved person who was staying at the Cataract House hotel with her husband in 1853 after escaping slavery along the Underground Railroad.
Martha’s former enslaver was offering money to people at the hotel and in the area trying to find her. The waiters at the Cataract House, who were all Black, helped to block the people attempting to capture Martha allowing for Martha and her husband to make a daring escape by climbing the stairs to the bottom of the falls and then rowing across to safety in Canada.
“Martha’s story hasn’t ever really been talked about,” Penfold said. “This is a page that should’ve been in the history books.”
Penfold’s mural is called “The Untold Pages of Her-story,” and will touch on themes of racial justice, freedom and female empowerment.
Penfold received her B.F.A. from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh in 2011. She has painted murals all over the country, including in California, New Mexico, and in Buffalo, and paints in what she describes as a realistic style.
The second mural is by Sara Zak, a local artist and adjunct professor at Villa Maria College. When conceptualizing her mural, she wanted to pick an idea that wasn’t already represented in the array of murals in the Main and Depot area. She decided to focus on environmental justice, particularly the Love Canal chemical disaster and how it affected renters in the Griffin Manor housing development.
“It was obvious (the mural) needed to be focused on people, rather than just the environment,” Zak said. “It was just a matter of seeking out folks in the community who have ties to the Love Canal. Environmental justice is social justice.”
Women led the effort to facilitate change with the Love Canal chemical disaster, as a lot of the rentees at Griffin Manor were larger families and many single mothers. Zak plans to focus her mural on the need to preserve the environment for the sake of children and future generations.
“The whole thing evolved into the importance of caring and providing for the kids by creating a safe environment for them, and if we’re lucky, they’ll move on to create a safe environment for their kids, and on and on and on,” Zak said.
While Zak typically works on large-scale paintings, this is her first solo mural project, and she expects a name for the project will materialize as the mural progresses.
“I decided to bring my studio process out into the open,” she said.
Zak specializes in oil painting and ephemeral, interactive installations. Her work is in private collections across the country and has been acquired by the Burchfield Penney Art Center and Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo.
Two additional murals through the NF Murals project will be started in the spring.