The image towers over a street in East Harlem, New York, invoking an intimate and peaceful moment—a Black woman having her hair braided. Shani Evans ’96 is the subject, though she says the artwork is meant to represent a universal, rather than a personal, moment of peace and connection.
The mural adorns a seven-story building at the corner of 104th and Madison, in a neighborhood where Shani lived for 25 years before gentrification priced her out. Kristy McCarthy (also known as D. Gale), the artist who led the community creation of the work, told Shani she chose her as its subject because she has “healing hands.”
In the mural, Shani, who is a nail technician, is shown tending to an aloe plant, known for its soothing powers. When practicing her art form, she says, “I pride myself on having a soft touch. I don’t yank people’s hands. I work very slowly. That does feel like healing.”
New York’s Department of Health sponsors the NYC Mural Arts Project, which commissioned the piece in an effort to destigmatize mental illness by making it visible. The program has mounted 10 of the large-scale murals since 2016. Members of the community gave feedback about the imagery, and also did the actual painting based on Kristy’s stencils.
In the mural, the black dog beside Shani represents depression; a phoenix, symbol of rebirth and recovery, rises in the center. The words “mental health is community health” are emblazoned on the edge of the image.
Shani lives with bipolar disorder. She says, “Dealing with a mental illness feels like you’re steering a ship that’s got an untrustworthy rudder. You’re still the pilot, it’s still your boat, but it sometimes leans too far to one side or the other.”
In working class or working poor communities, where people may not have access to comprehensive mental health care, nail and hair salons can offer invaluable support. “For a lot of us, our therapy is getting our hair braided or getting our nails done,” Shani says. The process “can quiet an anxious mind.” It’s that moment of healing that the mural captures.
Shani lives in Jersey City, N.J., now, but she does get back to East Harlem. “When I look at the mural, it makes me feel a kind of peace, even though it’s so gigantic,” she says. “I still get really emotional. My heart is in that neighborhood. When people look at it, they see me and they see my adventures in mental health. They see my hands, they see the braider’s hands. I feel loved. I feel proud.”
First in a series of stories about the ways in which alums care for others and themselves.