Love Letter to Cambridge

Caleb NeelonPhotos by Sasha Pedro.

Cambridge resident and muralist Caleb Neelon’s most recent work, “The Teachers’ Home,” located behind the H Mart in Central Square, is a “love letter to [his] hometown,” he says. Through this mural, Neelon says he wanted to thank the women in the city who raised him. 

This mural was a part of the Central Square Mural Project, through the Business Improvement District. The goal of the project is to celebrate the area while paying homage to the past, present, and future of Central Square. Neelon is also hoping to convey that the city that he loves should remain a home for all its people. 

“This place is expensive,” Neelon says. “It’s gotten obscenely so. I think it’s important for the people coming in who may be younger to know it wasn’t always that way here. There used to be a little more room in Cambridge. The transformation of wanting to be an industry town has been something that’s been weighing on everybody. I think it’s important to hold onto things we can hold onto.”

The conglomeration of images depicts a teacher looking out of her window to see high rise buildings, new condos, and construction. Behind her is a bulletin board filled with teacher appreciation letters—inspired by Neelon’s 7-year-old daughter’s drawings—alongside rent payments and loan notes. 

“Cambridge was a place where people could be a school teacher and not get a laugh and an eye roll when thinking about living here,” he says. “And that goes for all civil servants, too. This goes for police officers and firefighters.”

Neelon painted “The Teachers’ Home” in just a few weeks in October. He planned out the giant project using a smaller sketch, but he says the overwhelming size of the mural wasn’t an issue. 

“I don’t want to say this in a bragging way, but nothing about the size or scale was difficult,” he says. “The site was easy, the parking lot was closed off, I had a lift, I could go home to use the bathroom. It doesn’t get any easier than that, honestly. The size thing just comes with doing murals a lot.”

Very few of Neelon’s earlier experiences in large-scale murals took place in Cambridge, however. While there is no shortage of public art in the area now, this was not the case when Neelon was growing up.

Neelon says he grew up in a time where the city was not receptive to contemporary public art, calling it “a very late-developing art town.” Since Cambridge was not the best place for muralists, Neelon began traveling and immersed himself in the global graffiti scene under the name SONIK in the mid-1990s. He painted in over two dozen countries, from Nepal to Brazil.

It seems he had a knack for historicizing his experiences, whether it be through art or writing. While the graffiti and mural scenes were visually bursting at the seams in the ‘90s, there was little being written about them. So, coming from a family of writers, Neelon began writing articles and books about public art, too. 

Neelon says he explored places where there was more of a community between artists and less regulation. When he was in Brazil, he’d be painting on a wall and the owner of the business would come out and offer him a ladder. 

“Such an interaction would be beyond inconceivable here,” he says. 

Inconceivable, yes, but not impossible. Back in 2012, Neelon recalls walking up to a wall on Columbia Street he had been eyeing for a while, and asking the owner if he could create a piece of art. After looking at a photo of his ideas, she agreed. So, he believes there’s hope for more art, yet. Only time will tell. 

Caleb Neelon has painted murals across the greater Cambridge area, as well as in surrounding cities like Worcester, Allston, and Chelsea. He also does curatorial and studio work. To learn more about Caleb Neelon, visit www.calebneelon.com

This story appears in the March/April print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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