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WTF: What's With the Headless Woman Mural on Pine Street? 

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • matthew thorsen

Burlington is home to myriad street murals: the A-Dog tribute in the alley adjacent to Nectar's, the black-and-white portraits on the side of Merrill's Roxy Cinemas, and the Buddha on a storage building facing Calahan Park, to name a few. Another curious mural appeared recently, this time on the south-facing wall of Tapna Yoga on Pine Street, across from Conant Metal & Light.

The mural's unusual scene sets it apart from some of the more straightforward ones around town. Against a pastoral backdrop of green mountains, a headless woman in a striped shirt holds a bowl containing several goldfish. One fish is escaping, swimming into a large wave on the right. Above that, a large fish hovers, looking back at his friends as if beckoning them to join him in freedom. The odd imagery is enough to make a passerby think, WTF? Why doesn't the woman have a head? Is the painting unfinished?

The mural's story is one of collaboration, involving one business, two nonprofits, one artist, several volunteers and, by a stroke of luck, a presidential touch.

Tapna Yoga is one of several businesses at 257-277 Pine Street. About six months ago, Nigel Mucklow — a partner at New England Floor Covering, which owns the building — got a call from Josh Manes, the East Coast director of Beautify Earth. The California-based organization creates public and private art projects in various mundane places: on water valves, pipes and the walls of rundown buildings. The idea is to turn these facades into inspiring public art.

Someone at Beautify Earth thought the Tapna Yoga wall was mural-worthy, and Mucklow green-lighted the project. "It's a really different wall because we have a lot of electrical wires there," he explains. "My feeling was, anything was better than what we had."

Brian Clark is a muralist who volunteers as Burlington's project manager for Beautify Earth. He describes Pine Street as an ideal area to launch the nonprofit's mission in Vermont, and hopes that it will jump-start similar developments in other towns. "The main beautification effort on Pine Street is looking at dilapidated building fronts that could definitely use a face-lift, and trying to organize some artists and see who is interested," Clark says. "It brings art tourism and an outdoor experience just by taking a walk."

For Beautify Earth's inaugural mural in Vermont, they worked with B Corporation, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania nonprofit B Labs. Part of B Labs' mission is to accredit companies for practicing sustainability and social responsibility. Beautify Earth contacted various artists for submissions, including East Montpelier artist Amanda Hallock. Hallock had 24 hours to respond with a design, and B Corps ultimately chose and funded her mural. An upholsterer as well as fine artist, Hallock found unlikely inspiration for her mural at a pet store.

"I was contemplating buying a goldfish, and I went to the local pet store, only to be educated by the staff that, if you put a goldfish in a bowl, the fish will be unable to grow and live for an extended period of time," she says. "It was kind of a slap in the face. Like, Duh, obviously it would die. Who the hell wants to live in a fish bowl?"

Accordingly, Hallock's mural invites viewers to contemplate life "outside the fish bowl," she explains. If you are willing to take a leap and be the change, the artist suggests, there is a world waiting for you. Appropriately, the B Corp slogan is "B the change."

Hallock painted the mural over two nights — in the dark, while it was raining — with the help of several volunteers. She used a combination of exterior house paint and Kobra aerosol spray paint.

The mural has a unique distinction: President Obama watched it being constructed in real time. Hallock, then unaware that the President was involved, had been asked to send Beautify Earth continuous updates on the mural's progress through a series of photo texts from her phone. Obama happened to be visiting California's Beautify office for a meeting and viewed the photographs as an example of the organization's mission.

Just like Burlington locals, Obama puzzled over the headless woman. The confusion, Hallock says, is intentional. "The one message I wanted to be sure to send to those interpreting this mural is that change doesn't belong to one face," she says. "Although it maybe starts with one person, it's definitely much bigger than he or she."

Mucklow's take? "If some people think it's unfinished, that's art, I guess."

While the owners of New England Floor Covering considered "completing" the headless woman — even the possibility of creating different heads with seasonal themes — Mucklow says they ultimately decided against it. "If people are talking about it and asking about it, it's meeting its purpose," he says. "I'm not here to say it's good or bad art; it's just art."

Correction 12/10/14: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed B Corporation as the organization responsible for certifying Vermont businesses for sustainability and social responsibility. In fact, B Corporation is supported by B Labs, a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit based in Pennsylvania that created and funds B Corp and all its subsidiaries, including for-profit businesses awarded B Corp status.

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