Over the past year, the Howard Center Arts Collective has collaborated with residents and staff at four Chittenden County group homes to bring color and imagination to the walls of their common spaces.

The Arts Collective hired member-artist Annie Caswell to spearhead these projects. When she spoke to Counterpoint this spring, Caswell had completed murals at Allen Home in Winooski, Next Door in Burlington, and MyPad in Essex, and she had begun another at the new Lakeview House in Shelburne.

The murals depict a variety of scenes: a coral reef, downtown Winooski, The Wizard of Oz’s yellow brick road, and a “magical village” with gnomes and a unicorn. Each can take months to finish.

Caswell, who operates a “micro-business” called Kissed by Fire Creations, has also worked for Howard Center in various capacities. And like many other members of the Arts Collective, she identifies as an individual with her own lived experience of mental health challenges.

The involvement of group home residents starts from the mural’s conceptualization and continues throughout its execution. Some haven’t made art since childhood, while others may have professional-level skills. Regardless, Caswell tries to get as many as possible to pick up a brush.

“I had many people say, ‘I can’t do this,’” she recalled. “And then that’s my job to get their confidence up.”

Some participants expressed a fear of messing up, so Caswell had them draw first on paper, where they could have as many tries as they needed, and then transferred their designs to the wall for subsequent coloring. Others contributed ideas or aesthetic preferences.

“I have a pretty detailed conversation with them, saying, ‘What do you want on the wall? What do you think about words that you would like to see on the wall that are positive? Or what are some triggers that you might not want to see on the wall?’” she described.

According to Caswell, residents have reported enjoying the experience. She quoted one testimonial that called the process “a sort of meditation” and noted “a sense of accomplishment” at the end of it.

“I think that’s the important thing: what does this mural do?” Caswell said. “Yes, it makes a picture on the wall, but more importantly, it’s how it affects the community.”

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