By Tony E. Windsor

A recent event brought into fruition a concept that has been in the works for over a year as part of a community grassroots project. A Community Mural Project was launched several months ago at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Community Center, formerly an elementary school. On Saturday, Nov. 15, a dedication ceremony was held to formally recognize the efforts of community members who volunteered their support for the mural.

The mural concept was developed as part of the “One Laurel Committee.” A sub-committee of the group, the “Pride and Ownership” committee took the mural concept to the Laurel School District in an effort to get young people involved in contributing creative energy for the project. School District Art Instructor Dana Paternoster used the project as a teaching tool to inspire the students to use their passion for art in service to the greater community. 

In March, three art pieces created by the Laurel art students were presented at a Laurel Mayor and Council meeting, where the council members were asked to consider choosing one as the final to be used for the mural project. The council opted to have the community make the choice in order to promote a true sense of a community-based project.  

Richard McVey, a representative of the One Laurel Committee said the final selection of the mural artwork was made through community consensus. The mural art that was chosen and is now displayed on the Dunbar building was created by Laurel High School student artist, Lily Hearn, 15. 

The art features a tree with hands of diversity reaching out from the top with a background of a bright sun. Children of all colors are featured below the tree, playing on an open, green, rolling landscape much like a park. 

The One Laurel group is hoping that the community spirit intended to be promoted by the mural project will inspire members of the public to take advantage of enjoying the art-themed surroundings. 

McVey said he is excited about how much the mural project has become an example of true community spirt and vision. He feels having the mural painted on a building that has served to educate so many generations of young people, who together represent a reflection of the diversity of the community, is a perfect fit. The former school building is now being updated and along with currently housing the First State Community Action’s Head Start program, will also be the future home of the Laurel Police Department. 

During the event, husband and wife Dan and Sarah Phillipson, who volunteered their time to the project, shared how the mural project has been an inspiration to them. “We are new to community,” Dan said. “God blessed us by placing us here in Laurel a few years ago. Laurel is a wondrous place to live. We are close to beach resorts and we are surrounded by a multitude of ponds, rivers, and the Broad Creek. I am able to fish right behind my house.”

A school bus driver, Dan Phillipson also works at the Laurel Senior Center. He said the Dunbar Mural features outstretched hands which he feels symbolizes the volunteer spirit of the people of Laurel. “We have been blessed to be able to lend a hand in the community,” he said. “I am able to help seniors in the community with my work at the Laurel Senior Center and drive children to and from school each day. I also got to help paint a mural. All of this is to give back to the community in an effort to help it be just a little better. Just like the mural depicts, when hands pitch in it’s a part of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. We are blessed to be a part of this.”

His wife, a nurse, said she is inspired when she looks at the mural she helped to create. ‘This mural is a wonderful community project. The painting that is on this wall reminds me that we are all reaching for the same goal; to first love God, our neighbors and ourselves,” she said.

Another volunteer, Tommy Gray, feels the mural represents an act of love. “Change starts in the home and it starts in the community,” he said. “We all came together and this mural was placed here as an act of love. Jesus said to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This mural is an act of the love we have for one another.”

Laurel Mayor John Shwed offered his thoughts on the mural and its message to the community he serves. “Murals to me are a visual form of communication,” he said. “This is what I see, or interpret from this mural. In the uplifted hands I see the color of many races. I see people reaching upwards towards the future or to a goal. I see people working together to create a brighter future for all. Reflected in this mural is the concept of the melting pot of America where embracing diversity leads to a country moving forward through the ages.”

Shwed said he sees a message of universal love and the ability to convey that love to one another. “I believe that spirit of loving your neighbor is central to the theme of this Dunbar Mural. I believe Lilly [Hearn] the artist has captured that message quite well. And if Paul Laurence Dunbar were here I believe he would smile and say to the Laurel community ‘well done.’”

Police Chief Dan Wright, who was unable to attend the Dunbar Mural event, conveyed his written thoughts to the attendees. Wright said he feels the mural depicts the very essence of the community of Laurel and its diverse culture.

“Everything in this mural represents how community though diversity can come together in harmony. I cannot think of a better location for the mural than the Paul Laurence Dunbar building,” he said. A lot of times good ideas go by the wayside. In this case we had dedicated and motivated people behind this project. If it were not for this dedication and motivation I don’t think we would be standing here today.”

Wright said he would hope that everyone could see Laurel in the way artist Lilly Hearn characterized it in her mural art. “If everyone could learn to see the town of Laurel as it is represented in this impressive mural, we could truly say this is ‘One Laurel.’”

Offering their artistic expertise in the Dunbar Mural project were art teacher Dana Paternoster and guest artist Michael J. Morris, a native of Laurel who attended Paul Laurence Dunbar School and graduated from Laurel High School. Morris is a retired art educator of 40 years in Salisbury, and is a painter, graphic artist, printmaker, and photographer.

The One Laurel community initiative, which embraced the mural project, was created to build on the “Share, Inspire, Do” project first developed by the Laurel Public Library in early 2020. When the COVID-19 health crisis struck, the “Share, Inspire, Do” project was put on hold to enable the library to focus attention on providing necessary services to the community during the pandemic. The project was then picked up by One Laurel.