FITCHBURG — One local artist is giving back to the greater community in a profound way through a vivid and powerful mural creation at Abolitionist Park.
The work of Digi Chivetta is prominently on display at the park that was erected as an ode to the men and women of the city and beyond who fought bravely and tenaciously for the abolition of slavery in the U.S.
“Although I didn’t shy away from the gravity of the subject, you will notice that there are no depictions of chains or enslaved people,” the talented 34-year-old Northborough artist said. “These images only serve to re-traumatize viewers who have already been through too much. Instead, I filled the composition with twirling Egùngùn masquerade dancers adorned with vibrant costumes.”
She said Egùngùn masquerades “honor a category of collective ancestors” and the practice originates from Yorubaland, Nigeria.
“As a Yoruba Orisa devotee, these are the images that I want Black children to have of their ancestors, not the cruelty that was inflicted upon them,” Chivetta said. “The Egùngùn dancers also represent the rich cultures that we, as Black people, were severed from as a result of the slave trade.”
The six-panel large scale mural spans a length of fence at the Snow Street space and features images of prominent city abolitionists Benjamin Snow Jr., who the street is named after, his wife Martha Snow Wallace, Theodore Becker, a medic on the side of the abolitionists, the Grimké sisters Sarah Moore and Angelina Emily, and Frederick Douglass, who visited Fitchburg several times and was a major supporter of the movement there.
The white abolitionists surround the composition that also includes abolitionist related quotes.
“Their stance and clasped hands are a reference to the ‘white shields’ at Black Lives Matter protests,” Chivetta said of the white abolitionists. “I did this to emphasize the importance of white allies in the process of healing the country from the atrocities of slavery.”
Strength, bravery, and alliance are at the heart of the brand new, nearly finished murals she began undertaking last month along with artist assistants Shara Osgood and William Thompson. They have been diligently working side by side all hours of the day since then, even in the middle of the night, using mostly acrylic exterior paint and details with acrylic and enamel spray paint. The works will also be waterproofed for display at the park.
“For the first two weeks or so we had to work between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. because we needed to see the light from the projector to do the underpainting,” Chivetta recalled. “Every night I was wide awake like it was the middle of the afternoon!”
Once the underpainting was complete, they started adding in color, which she said really made the mural come to life. The process has been going well and while this is her first time tackling a mural, Chivetta said she’s “done a lot of things that are similar, so it hasn’t taken me much time to adjust.”
She said the aim of the mural is to educate the public about Fitchburg’s “impressive abolitionist past,” which includes it being the home to various stops on the Underground Railroad, the renowned safe haven for slaves looking to escape north. She was inspired to apply for the project after the Worcester Art Council put out a call for artists on Instagram.
“Usually, I would shy away from tackling a project with slavery as part of the subject matter,” Chivetta shared. “As a Black child growing up in a predominantly white suburb, the only times I would see people that looked like me in class were in graphic depictions of the torture that enslaved people were forced to endure. With no way of processing the pain and nobody around me to share it, it became a deep wound. I decided that this was the reason that I needed to apply, so I could help little black kids like me. I want them to know that their pain is real, and that someone sees and empathizes with them.”
Of the artists who applied, park founder David Thibault-Muñoz said Chivetta was chosen by their selection committee “because of her authentic vision for the mural.”
“Her artistic conceptualization not only includes local and national historic figures within the abolitionist movement, but aims to highlight women, including the Grimke sisters and Fitchburg’s very own Caroline Mason, abolitionist, poet, and journalist, as well as the theme of freedom, with her generous sprinklings of West African Yoruba culture and spirituality throughout,” said the Mount Wachusett Community College professor who hatched the idea for the park along with his students. “Digi’s mural adds so much color and vibrancy to the park and celebrates not just this historical fight for freedom, but the future of that very same movement.”
According to an article posted to history.com, the abolitionist movement was an organized effort to end the practice of slavery in the United States that took place from about 1830 to 1870.
Though it started as a movement with religious underpinnings, abolitionism became a controversial political issue that divided much of the country. Supporters and critics often engaged in heated debates and violent, even deadly, confrontations. The divisiveness and animosity fueled by the movement, along with other factors, led to the Civil War and ultimately the end of slavery in the U.S.
Fitchburg has rich history as a supporter of the movement and was home to many prominent figures who helped abolish slavery during the 19th century by seeking the immediate and full emancipation of all enslaved people. Most early abolitionists were white, religious Americans, but some of the most prominent leaders of the movement were also Black men and women who had escaped from bondage.
“The history here is amazing,” Chivetta said of Fitchburg’s role in the abolitionist movement.
In addition to being an artist, the self-proclaimed “creator” is also an author and has two books published that are available for purchase online. “Halo,” a fable type myth she originally wrote when she was 10, tells the story of a boy who dies in a fire and awakens in a land of candy where he must pass three tests to reach the afterlife. Chivetta came across a copy of the story 20 years later when she was living in Italy.
“I was shocked at how deep story was, considering it was written by a 10-year-old,” she said. “I redrew the illustrations and translated it into Italian, and the Italian and English texts are side by side to help anyone wanting to learn either language so that both my Italian and American families could enjoy it.”
“Meriye and the Forbidden Forest” is an adventurous coming-of-age story about a girl who travels into the unknown and discovers the power of her destiny.
“It’s not a fairy tale, it’s Odu Ifa, ancient African technology,” Chivetta said of her second book. “The wisdom of Odu Ifa can heal, transform, and empower anyone willing to take the journey. It’s also a great opportunity for anyone to learn more about the Yoruba Orisa culture, which I referenced in the mural. This book is especially close to me my heart because I produced it in collaboration with my sister. She wrote it and I illustrated it.”
Chivetta studied fashion design at Pratt Institute and is planning to move to Worcester this fall. She said “art is my life” and that she makes “art the way that people eat food or drink water.”
“I feel physically ill when I’m not creating.”
As far as what’s next, Chivetta said she has “lots of plans.”
“My sister and I have ready started planning our next book and I am also applying for much bigger mural projects. Next week, I’m starting welding classes so I can learn to make public sculptures as well.”
But for now, she is focusing on striving to highlight the city’s invaluable role in the abolitionist movement through her current project, which at times has been challenging for her physically as she has health issues.
“I have three autoimmune diseases and did a year of unnecessary chemotherapy,” she said. “As a result, my health is quite fragile, and a minor infection can send me to the hospital. Painting a mural can be physically taxing. It’s been difficult to balance my excitement for the project with my body’s need for adequate rest.”
Despite needing to listen to her body and taking breaks from the project as needed, Chivetta said she has “honestly enjoyed every step of the process since this is my dream job” and that people have been “so excited and supportive” of the murals.
“I’m able to leave some of my supplies in the park overnight because nobody touches them,” she said. “Everyone has respect for what I’m trying to do.”
She said the reaction to their work has been nothing short of positive and that “another unexpected joy has been feeling adopted by the community.”
“I’ve had neighbors and policemen stop by just to thank me for making their town more beautiful,” Chivetta said. “People have brought me bottles of cold water on hot days. Sometimes people come to park to walk their dogs and I’ve gotten to take puppy breaks from work to pet them. I usually work in my studio alone, so I’m not used to people cheering me on as I work. It’s been quite touching.”
People will be able to meet the artist in person at her pop-up studio at the Fitchburg Art Museum this Saturday and Sunday as part of the city’s Open Studios, a free, self-guided, art discovery tour at various spots around the city, and she will even be doing some free tarot readings there.
Chivetta said she wants the mural to be as complete as possible by then so she can “show off” their work, and the mural will officially be unveiled at the park on Oct. 15 at a neighbor conversation and community open house from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information including upcoming projects follow Digi Chivetta on Facebook and Instagram.