Artists’ painting murals in Cat Alley — better known as Dean Avenue — is an idea that began two years ago. It was a collaboration between Intown Manchester, the Palace Theatre, developer Dick Anangost and Kas-Bar Realty, according to Greg Barrett, owner of Kas-Bar Realty. Barrett said the group held a contest to solicit artists to paint themed art in the alley, which would feature plenty of cute cats to pay homage to its nickname. According to a plaque hanging in the alley, it got its name from the late C.T. Durgin, who once saw a fierce battle between two felines. The alley is just past Lala’s Hungarian Pastry, across from XO On Elm.
Artists submitted their work and it was displayed on Oct. 30, 2009, at the Palace Theatre during the opening of the show — you guessed it — CATS. Winners were selected; however, the project lost momentum and it wasn’t until last year that artist Peter Noonan put up the first cats.
In an effort to raise funds for the project, Barrett said, an auction was held in Veterans Park during one of Intown Manchester’s concert series. However, in a sign of the poor economic conditions of that time, very little money was raised.
Barrett said out of desperation he put up a sign in the alley requesting artists. Recently the project caught the attention of Ann Kelley of the Manchester Artist Commission. Barrett said two months later he received a call from Anthony Williams.
Williams said he took over the project because public murals are his specialty. Williams has worked with many young graffiti artists through his involvement with Eagle Eyes, a neighborhood organization started in October 2006 for protection, beautification, improvement, and fun for all the neighborhoods in Manchester. His mural lights up Litchfield Lane.
Williams has been able to secure a group of artists who are volunteering their time and paint to help beautify the city of Manchester without a cent coming from taxpayers’ pockets. This group includes Peg Lipin, Bill Earnshaw, Brian Lapree, Noonan, Cindy O’Rourke (who is also a nurse), Del Christensen, Aimee Cozza, 11-year-old Kaitlin Gould, Brianna Gould, Caroline Chavette, Emily Drouin, Alex Mathieu and Anita Huddlestun.
“It is people who love this city and are doing good things for it,” Barrett said.
Barrett said the project is part of a greater vision to revitalize the downtown and eventually have a place where art can be sold outdoors and give visitors an alternative to the restaurants and bars. Williams said his dream is for a designated space for public art, which could bring seasoned and young artists together to work on the project. He said it could be changed every year.
The issue of what can be described as “street art” in public spaces has been in the headlines recently, as a group of Portsmouth residents objected to the Portsmouth Museum of Art’s new exhibit, “Street a.k.a. Museum,” which featured urban artists from around the world who put up works in the seaside city. Williams said through his work with Eagle Eyes he has collaborated with a variety of organizations, including Saint Anselm College. Williams said when nuns talk he listens. With outdoor work, he follows protocol and while he respects artists who use their work for political or social commentary, he wouldn’t use that work in an outdoor exhibit.
“If you have Marx on your mind, don’t do it,” Williams said. “But if you can find a blue sky and a cloud, I’ll work with you.”
Williams knows first-hand the importance of positive public art. He said many of the youngsters he works with are “under the bridge,” a term used to describe illegal taggers. These taggers think they’re creating art but in actuality they are defacing public property. And if that property happened to be funded at all by the federal government, then they could be facing federal charges if they are caught.
Instead, Williams likes to bring them out in the open and teach them respect. He said most of the public murals he has worked on for Eagle Eyes have not been vandalized because he has brought in the local kids who feel pride in the work and spread that pride to their friends. Barrett said, as a foster parent, he knows how important and effective this practice can be.
“We need to give them positive ways to channel their creativity,” Williams said.
Organizers hope the Cat Alley project will be finished by Aug. 4, which is Trolley Night in downtown Manchester, when art fans can visit the city’s many art galleries. Barrett said on that night there will be an event in Cat Alley to show off what has been done, in hopes that other building owners might want similar work on their buildings.