The man who brought a detailed view of cities from around the world to the Hill neighborhood has a new mission: helping New Haveners bring their own city into view.
Sixty-three-year-old Nigerian-born artist Gregory “Krikko” Obbott (pictured) is taking on that mission through an Arts Council of Greater New Haven–funded project called Uniting Visions. He’ll visit the city’s five libraries over the first half of 2015 to work with kids and adults to draw “intimate portraits of their own neighborhoods, from bird’s-eye view to street corner sketch to whatever you see out your window to what you see out of the windows of memory,” in the words of a project statement. Krikko will assemble the finished pieces into one huge mosaic to hang in venues across the city.
“We’ll be able to inspire kids that you can dream big,” Krikko said. “Dreaming big takes time, takes energy, takes frustration. But if you stay the course, you can succeed.”
That pretty much sums up Krikko’s life story. Growing up in Nigeria with his grandmother, he began “scribbling on mud bricks” and discovered he liked art. He came to America, earned an art degree, then developed his own approach to capturing cityscapes: creating precise, detailed murals in pencil. His break came 18 years ago with a 20-by-15-foot aerial view of Manhattan (pictured) looking north from its southern edge. It took Krikko four years—and 2,496 lead pencils—to complete. It became a hot-selling poster and postcard. Similar intricate murals of Chicago, Boston, New Haven, and Lagos followed.
Krikko dreamed big about New Haven’s Hill neighborhood, too. He decided that a destroyed 1890 carriage house for the former Hull’s Brewery at West and Ann streets, a block people from outside the neighborhood rarely traveled, could become an art museum.
He spent eight years and $450,000—a mixture of personal savings and loans—meticulously designing and building the Hill Museum of the Arts. The museum, nestled near the Columbus West housing development, opened its doors a year ago.
It is one of New Haven’s beautiful spaces, a sun-filled, colorful, wide-open sanctuary of hope and inspiration. Krikko’s wall-sized pencil murals climb three stories high in the main room leading to two interior balconies where he works on his next projects.
A recording of “Grandmama’s Cry,” a Miles Davis-ish cool-jazz composition he wrote and recorded, filled the palatial space the other day as Krikko described the upcoming Unity Visions project along with his partner in the venture, Peter Webster. As the project’s lead artist, Krikko will hold master classes in the Fair Haven, Mitchell, Stetson, Wilson, and downtown main library branches. He will return to review participants’ work as they revise it. Webster, a Wooster Square theater and opera director who became enamored of Krikko’s work after meeting him at last summer’s Arts & Ideas Hill mini-festival, will serve as the project’s on-site coordinator. Both are donating their time. A grant from the Arts Council’s Community Engagement Initiative covers $1,000 of the cost of materials; Ninth Square’s Artists & Craftsman Supply is donating the rest. The library system has a staffer, Xia Feng, assigned to work on the project as well.
The plan is to have the mural completed and displayed at various venues by the summer.
“The goal,” said Webster (pictured with Krikko), “is to have people celebrate their city and celebrate their neighborhood.”
The proposal approved by the Arts Council describes the broader goal this way: “This project will build community. New Haven is a city severely divided by neighborhood, race, class and social status. This project could help reveal the fact that we are not separate systems, but humans in varied and various pieces of a mosaic/collage that united reveal strength in the diversity that now divides us.”
At the least, kids will get to draw, the way young Krikko started drawing, and see their world from a fresh perspective.
Both children and adults will participate in the project. In conversation, Krikko kept returning to how inspired he is to work with young people. He spoke of how his neighbors in the Hill have respected his museum and how children react when they come in and see the wall-sized murals. “The kids’ eyes pop,” he said. “They pick up on [details] in the drawings that you can’t believe they can see”—a barely visible dot, say, that represents a pedestrian.
In addition to the Uniting Visions project, Krikko is hard at work expanding his museum. He’s in the midst of a planned $300,000 renovation of the property’s dilapidated garage into a Hill community arts space, housing more works, classes, and an animation studio. He also plans to sleep there.
And, in an alcove on an upstairs balcony of his magical museum, Krikko is busy with his next pencil piece, a new take on Manhattan. This time the perspective is from the north, looking south.