By Mitch Rustad
At just 20 years old, artist and activist Mary Haddad has already put her creative stamp on the Hudson Valley in a very big way.
For several years, her provocative, eye-popping murals—one called “All Black Lives Matter” and the other “We Are Poughkeepsie”—have been showcased at area schools and arts centers, creating awareness and inspiring dialogue, which is exactly what Haddad had hoped for from the start.
“I believe they’ve started meaningful conversations,” Haddad says. She conceived the BLM mural idea when she was a senior at Spackenkill High School, after several BLM signs at nearby Oakwood Friends School were vandalized. “And I also think they created hope for other kids, who see this and realize they can be a part of something bigger through their actions and creativity.”
While the original vision for both murals was Haddad’s, making those visions come to life was a massive community effort, which included support from the Poughkeepsie City School District, The Art Effect, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, the Poughkeepsie Public Library and Hudson Valley’s artists and art educators.
The BLM mural had 47 volunteers, mostly school kids from Poughkeepsie and Oakwood areas, who helped paint it, while the “We Are Poughkeepsie” mural was crafted with the help of 15 students from the Poughkeepsie City School District.
Haddad says both projects were a huge undertaking powered by collaboration. “The most exciting part was the act of coming together and watching other people help paint my vision,” she says. “It was a journey. It was very fun to paint with other people, there was always music playing, I always tried to make it as comfortable as possible. This was really about bringing young people together.”
But how exactly did these detail-rich murals take shape? “At first, I just did a lot of research,” she says. “All Black Lives Matter” features Haddad’s renderings of 11 victims of police brutality. “I was looking up stories and photographs and finding details of each person’s life.” She then created her design digitally on her iPad and projected it onto a big canvas, with each section delineated in a paint-by-numbers style. “It was like a big coloring book,” she says.
Though she eventually took art classes in high school, Haddad’s initial training as an artist also reveals her ambition and inner drive: “I’m self-taught as a painter,” she says. “I watched a bunch of Instagram reels, YouTube videos, so I learned just watching techniques from other people. I’m very much a product of the internet.”
Today, Haddad is a student at Boston University, majoring in political science, philosophy and painting, and she works as a teacher’s assistant. “I really enjoy teaching,” Haddad says, and encourages everyone to flex their creative and artistic muscle: “I think anybody can do art, or any fine arts skill—you just need access to the materials and to put in the time.”
Haddad says, for now, she’s just going with the flow: “I can’t tell you exactly what my future will be, it’s very much whatever happens happens—but I definitely want it to be a combination of art and activism.”
Her hope for the BLM movement is that people begin to take initiative to understand the roots of police brutality. “The root of the solution is education,” she says. “Find a community where you can talk about it. It’s really about creating a conversation.”
“All Black Lives Matter” is currently showcased at Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie. “We Are Poughkeepsie” is displayed at Poughkeepsie Middle School. Haddad has a third mural—which she describes as a “composition piece based on community”—currently on display at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie.