Local Heroes / Rob Lynch
An art catalyst in Niagara Falls and Cataract City hero
Photos by kc kratt
The profilees featured in this month's issue may not have instantly recognizable names, but to us they’re famous. They do tireless work—often volunteered or minimally compensated—to support what makes life in Western New York (or anywhere) worth living: adequate housing, personal safety, good medical care, access to arts/culture, a healthy natural environment, and so much more. Meet one of our heroes: Rob Lynch.
Niagara Falls native Rob Lynch never conquered the falls in a barrel, but he’s still a Cataract City hero.
The multiple award-winning educator, musician, and visual artist teaches fine art and music at Niagara Falls High School. In 2008, he bought a massive turn of the century house on Chilton Avenue within view of the mist rising from the Niagara cascade. While laboring to bring the home “back to its former glory,” he formed the Chilton Avenue Block Club. He began mowing a vacant lot where his street intersects Main, and the city helped him to “take control” of the windswept tract under a program called Green Print Niagara. Lynch organized neighbors and raised funds to plant trees, flowers, and grass, and add benches and other elements. The lot is now Lilac Park.
Now, a new Lynch community enhancement project is turning heads by bringing visual excitement to the city’s downtown core. “Art Alley grew organically out of a sense of optimism and renewal in the city of Niagara Falls that has developed over recent years,” says Lynch.“There is a group of do-gooders who are actively working to remove the fog of negativity that has plagued our city for ages.”
Lynch credits social media for bringing together like-minded residents to initiate change. The “power of tribes,” he calls it. Social media allows people “who just want to get things done” to share success stories, countering what he calls “our sketchy image that’s often presented in the local media.” Partly as a result of his public gardening activities, Lynch met the city’s director of community development, Seth Piccirillo. Together, they began dreaming up ideas for new public art projects. After some false starts, Lynch and Piccirillo painted a quick word mural on a shuttered building located conspicuously near Niagara Falls State Park. The one-day project simply read, “You’re Changing.” For Lynch, that set the tone, a positive message to a beleaguered city on the cusp of a comeback. It was a feel-good moment.
Soon after, Piccirillo and Lynch visited a plot of land the city had recently acquired on Third Street between Ferry and Niagara. It was a trash-strewn vacant alley with tall weeds and long flat windowless walls. “We looked around,” remembers Lynch, “and thought, can we beautify and reclaim this space?” Lynch’s answer: “Of course we can.” The artist envisioned the alley as an outdoor art gallery, with a series of colorful murals stretching the lot’s length. Some community art projects score points for public involvement, but are short on aesthetics. “I wanted to bring a serious artistic angle to this project,” he explains, “bringing in artists who have good track records. Some are professors; many have master’s degrees in the arts; many are in the collections of the Burchfield Penney Arts Center and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.”
Acting as curator, Lynch invited a mix of veteran artists and exceptional Niagara Falls High School Advanced Placement students. Some had ties to Niagara Falls; others were from as far away as Virginia, Cincinnati, and Toronto. They stayed at Lynch’s home while they worked. He couldn’t include all the artists he wanted this time around, but he sees the Third Street murals as the first of many such projects in the region. “We created a model that other artists could follow in Niagara Falls, and elsewhere,” he notes. Area businesses and individuals helped fund the work, with paint donated by Sherwin-Williams. The entire project took just over a year to complete, with Lynch and others laboring daily “until it got too cold, dark, and snowy in late December,” then starting again in the spring.
“Niagara Falls has been down on its luck for way too long. We wanted to breathe life into a forgotten space and let it be a spark for the community, a nudge to take our city back,” affirms Lynch. He knows the city’s problems are complex, but adds, “the phrase ‘Be the change you wish to see’ comes to mind.” Artists have kick-started growth in other cities. Besides Lynch, the Art Alley artists are Kyle Baillargeon, David Buck, Tricia Butski, Brandon Celi, A. J. Fries, Tom Holt, Hussalonia, Dan Lusk, Phil Mohr, Rick Nickel, Ogre, Madonna Pannell, Seth Piccirillo, Tom Proctor, Fritz Proctor, Jonathan Rodgers, Chuck Tingly, and Yames. “I must say, it was a beautiful project from beginning to end because of these wonderful people,” Lynch enthuses. “Honestly, this was an amazing summer that I will remember as a bright spot for the rest of my life.”
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, and writer who contributes frequently to Spree.