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"A labor of passion and compassion": creators of a public arts mural ask where their mural has gone

Latino Poets mural
Niagara Frontier Transit Authority

“Who would have guessed it? A home so far from home, here in Buffalo, close to the sweet butter Easter lambs at the Broadway market. Their delicate yellow repose, their thin red bows, there promise of peace.” –Poetry vignette by Olga Karman.

Those are words from Poet and Author Olga Karman. Words that, for several decades, were etched into a mural inside the Allen-Medical Campus N.F.T.A. metro station in the City of Buffalo.

In 1982, Karman and two other writers, Alberto Cappas and Juan Gonzales were tasked with providing vignettes of their poetry to be put on the 30’ mural.

“We made a poetry mural, which had to do with how we feel about America,” Karman said. “[About] the United States, coming here. About immigration, establishing a new life in Buffalo.”

Although Gonzales was born in the United States Cappas and Karman were born in Puerto Rico and Cuba, respectively.

Thomas O'Neil-White
Writers Olga Karman (left) and Alberto Cappas

Cappas said to have Buffalo’s Latinx community represented in this way, at that time was a big deal.

“And they wanted to make sure that it will diversify, that was inclusive but to them inclusive meant Black and white,” he said. “So what [Olga] said we had a fight to make sure the Latino voice, Latino art got our presence there.”

Sitting at an Allentown restaurant, Olga and Alberto reminisced about this period. The journey to Buffalo and making Buffalo home was universal to Karman.

“I was there opening night,” she said of grand opening of the Allen-Medical Campus metro stop. “I was standing by our mural in silence and there was a row of people behind me and I listened to them and they were saying my family went through that.”

They would smile sometimes thinking about the youth in Puerto Rico, holding on to their dreams to help them stay alive. Thinking of yesterday, the trip from Puerto Rico, Alberto-Albert, Maria, Mary, Geraldo-Gerald, Candida-Candy. The first introduction to the unfriendly Buffalo cold.” –Poetry vignette by Alberto Cappas.

Cappas and Karman said Gonzalez, who passed away in Florida in May, was a big mover and shaker in the arts world.

“Very happy go lucky person,” Cappas said. “Very positive, very artistic. While in Buffalo…he was the one that actually added the real cultural infrastructure to the Latino Gallery.”

Olga, Alberto and Juan were responsible for the poems on the mural but who constructed the actual mural?

At the Garden of Earthly Delights and Clear Light Studios in Clarence Sculptor Donna Ioviero walked through the cramped space where she and her late husband Bill made the mural.

“288 tiles. We had a 27’ would fit along the front and all the way to the back would just give us enough room,” she said of the limited space.

Thomas O'Neil-White
The inside of the shed where the ceramic tiles for the mural were made

Each ceramic tile had to be fired in a kiln, taking 5 to 10 minutes to fire each tile. All told, Ioviero said it took three days to fire all of the ceramic tiles.

“And the mural had so many tiles that we actually built a bridge so we can be on top because when you're doing enameling it looks like sugar but it's different colors so you got to be on top of it to be able to try to get it so that's how we got over that problem.”

The mural remained at the Allen-Medical Campus station for years before being removed by the NFTA as the Medical Campus was being built up.

Were any of the producers of the mural notified of its removal?

“I didn’t know,” Karman said.

“I was living in New York City at the time,” Cappas said. “And I came back to Buffalo in 2013. The first thing I did was go to our city to look at the mural and the mural was gone.”

“My husband was at Roswell,” Ioviero said. “And someone told me ‘hey you know they're taking down their thing’ and I said what I supposed to do? I can't do anything my husband's dying of cancer.”

NFTA Spokesperson Kelly Khatib said the NFTA currently has the mural in storage and there is discussion about what to do with it.

“It is an old piece and keeping that public art is very important to us so right now it's being reviewed for restoration,” she said.

Thomas O'Neil-White
Sculptor Donna Ioviero (left) with Olga Karman

But what do the surviving creators of the mural want to see done with it?

“I'd be satisfied,” Karman said. “Don't kill me for…this I'd be satisfied if we did a painted reproduction of the original.”

Cappas agreed that a reproduction of the original would be nice but the original mural provides a lasting legacy of the Latino voice in Western New York and should have a place in a public space. Talks of finding funding to restore and find a new home for the mural stalled out in 2018.

“I think the original is very, very vital and very important to the history of the growth and development of the Latino community because this piece has history and it was done with love it was a labor of passion and compassion. So no, we cannot sacrifice that piece.”

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.