Conceived by Westbury grad, school murals promote creativity, possibility
"I didn’t like the starving-artist myth," said Marie Saint-Cyr, who at 26 proudly calls herself a homeowner. Her recently purchased residence in Brentwood also houses the offices of the Haitian native’s thriving business, Saint-Cyr Art Studio.
The 3-year-old company has been making its mark designing and executing large-scale murals for a host of commercial and community clients — encouraging employees to use the stairs at MasterCard’s Manhattan offices, beautifying Brooklyn bike barriers for the New York City Department of Transportation and promoting mental wellness for the HRHCare Health Center in Wyandanch, to name a few.
Saint-Cyr not only seeks to engage individuals and communities through art, but through the making of art, too.
"I wanted to create something impactful, to be able to inspire others to thrive from their talents," she said, noting that formal fine-art training is not a prerequisite for becoming involved with her company. In addition to Saint-Cyr’s own full-time staff and contracted muralists, her clients’ employees, students and even passersby are regularly recruited to help with the realization of the studio’s wall-to-wall visions.
Recently among them were students from four Long Island districts targeted in a campaign to support at-risk youth and enhance the public-school environment. The initiative was co-sponsored by the Nassau County Office of Youth Services and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.
Creating art, said Saint-Cyr, critically enhanced her own experience at Westbury High, one of the schools selected to receive funding for the mural project. "It was therapeutic. I leaned more toward abstract painting. I found it freeing, a way to communicate things that are more subtle," she said.
Saint-Cyr continued to explore ways to express herself after high school at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but found the education lacking, she said, with regard to learning how to market her work.
"Business classes were generally not open to fine-art majors," she said. "I had to go through about three or four different departments and have them sign different permission forms to allow me to be able to take the classes."
Saint-Cyr credits her strong interest in entrepreneurship to her early childhood in Haiti.
"Growing up there you had to be resourceful," she explained. "When I came here, I saw opportunities that had a lot of value."
After graduating from FIT in 2018, she launched a business from her family home in Wyandanch, working at summer art camps and in art education, doing paint parties and mural projects — "things to engage youth in art." She also enrolled in multiple entrepreneurship programs, including Ascend Long Island and Goldman Sachs’ online 10,000 Women course.
Soon Saint-Cyr felt prepared to give her own presentations on artists and entrepreneurship. At least one attendee of her 2021 virtual talk, sponsored by Hofstra University, took her words to heart. "I was seeking tips, and Marie was seeking muralists," recalled Sage Cotignola, a 29-year-old Brooklynite who grew up in East Quogue. Now a full-time employee, the Pratt Institute graduate oversees the design and execution of the studio’s murals.
Identifying an increasing demand for wall paintings, Saint-Cyr quickly saw it as the best way to grow her business. In fact, in school murals alone, her company has some 25-plus commissions to be completed in the next three months in New York City and the surrounding region. "I realized I could train people to design, paint and get contracts," she explained. "The murals can serve a lot of different purposes — beautification, advertisement, engagement. We could work with any client who wants to communicate something visually."
That mandate proved multifaceted with the Long Island school campaign.
Former executive director of the Nassau County Office of Youth Services, Dana Boylan, said she immediately thought of the artist entrepreneur as a perfect partner for the "Safe play, safe development, safe community and safe connections" campaign initiated by the state governor’s office. "I had seen the murals she had created in New York City working with youth, exposing them to the idea of a career in the creative space," said Boylan. "She helped to identify districts that would be onboard with allowing school walls to be covered with positive imagery and that were willing to engage — and compensate — students throughout the artistic process." (Students who participated, Saint-Cyr said, received $50 VISA gift cards.)
The murals not only serve to inspire the students during their school day but underscore the importance of art in the educational community. "They can see their work and be proud," noted Boylan. "They can intentionally own the space, if you will."
The sentiment sits well with the initiative’s theme, which the schools were free to interpret in uniquely relevant ways.
'Great for morale'
Collaborating with Saint-Cyr, staff and students at Westbury High School, for example, chose to paint text and graphic imagery — including its dragon mascot — in a well-trafficked stairwell. "My children at Westbury High School deserve positivity on a daily basis in any fashion in which we can provide it," Principal David Zimbler said, noting that the pandemic had significantly limited such opportunities.
"It has been great for morale, particularly during the COVID crisis," agreed Peppericka Bonay-Martin, a 12th-grade English teacher and a director of Westbury’s Building Assets Reducing Risks program. "It has created an energy we have not felt to this level within our school culture."
Tenth-grade art enthusiast Jordan Chester helped to make that happen. "Participating in this project improved my own sense of value and pride not only in my school, but also in myself," he said. "I learned that my love for art illustration can lead to a career and at the same time help people."
The Westbury mural’s success, in fact, generated a separate, school-funded project for Saint-Cyr and her student helpers. "Interesting enough, my wife, Meredith sent, me a picture of a female bathroom beautification project in a school from another state," recalled Zimbler. "I thought it was a great idea." Now the phrases "You Are Beautiful," "You Are Worth It" and "You Are Strong" decorate the walls of the girls' bathroom in English, Haitian Creole and Spanish, respectively.
"The murals are meant to remind students they are creative, diligent, visionary and focused leaders pursuing an education at a school that recognizes them as such," said Saint-Cyr, who revealed her own alumni status and personal experiences in a virtual assembly.
The self-made business owner is perhaps the greatest example. "Through her determination and hard work, she gives our current students something positive to give them hope for the future and leaves a legacy for them to follow in her path," noted Bonay-Martin.
She is not alone in her observation. "I really enjoyed watching Marie as a young powerful woman," said 10th-grader Dayana Hernandez Ferrera of her involvement.
Her classmate Gesnerline Michel was equally, if not more, impacted. "I wanted to participate, to work with a student who graduated from Westbury High School who was a Haitian immigrant like me and is now successful doing what she loves doing. I am an honor student, but I sometimes struggle with how I can have my voice heard. This project helped me see how it can be done and that anything is possible."
The mural Saint-Cyr Studio designed at Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School communicates similar messages of positivity and possibility by including an image of its namesake at the center of the painting that spans multiple walls of its main entranceway.
"Mrs. Alverta B. Gray Schultz was a pioneer for equality and education in the Hempstead community," noted school Principal Carey Gray. "It was great to memorialize her."
The design includes buzzwords the school promotes as essential to its learning environment, words such as "balanced" and "principled" that 10th-grader Glendy Hernandez Almendarez, an ABGS graduate who contributed to the project as a student mentor, found applicable while working on the mural.
"I learned that I find peace in art," she said, "and that you need a good primer to lay down the foundation, along with steady hands."
Uniondale’s Turtle Hook Middle School also focused its design on so-called Character Education Pillars, particularly linking them to the concepts of safe development and safe connections, according to Principal Don Humphrey.
"The silhouette images of scholars moving from being students to professionals create a bridge to symbolize how these connections tie back to our community and those communities beyond our own," he explained. "The images are self-depictions reminding everyone that we belong."
Silhouetted figures of students and envisioned graduates also cover two large walls near Roosevelt Middle School’s library. "It’s a form of appreciation, a storyteller and mood booster," student newsletter journalist Nicia Warren observed. "When walking up and down the halls nearly every 42 minutes for six hours, five days for 10 months, things start to get repetitive. The new mural is something different."
The wall paintings have indeed been a real pick-me-up for Uniondale’s Jessie Mason. "Every time I walk past the mural," the sixth-grader said, "I get to know I was a part of that."