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You are loved: Mural addresses human trafficking in Vermont

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Alex Cook's mural on Cherry Street

Alex Cook's mural on Cherry Street

Hannah Stearns

Hannah Stearns

Alex Cook's mural on Cherry Street

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Burlington’s Cherry Street is now home to a bold and colorful proclamation. A mural that reads “You Are Loved” in sweeping purple and blue lettering covers a majority of the building across from Ben and Jerry’s. This mural, along with many more, is the passion project of Boston-based artist Alex Cook.

The You Are Loved movement began in 2013 when Cook was asked to create a mural at a New Orleans elementary school that would help the students feel more safe. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a really serious thing to ask a work of art to contribute to,’” Cook said. He spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what he could do to achieve what had been asked of him.

“I thought, ‘Well, the thing that makes people generally feel safe is feeling with certainty that they are valuable, that there are people that care about them,’” he said. “Basically, love feels like the first and foremost agent of helping people feel safe.” It is with that concept that he decided not to be subtle, but to just say, to the students and to the rest of the world, what he meant.

For Cook, the idea of being so public and so direct with this message of love was incredibly freeing. He notes that public spaces are often dominated by commercialism, materialism and the “everyone for themselves” mentality, and wouldn’t it be ironic if his mural were next to a billboard for Hennessy? He wants his murals to be as large as possible and to therefore be somewhat confrontational with this message of love. “[It is] very powerful for me to think of being so confident about something that, culturally, we are kind of unconfident about,” Cook said.

Cook has been an artist for a number of years and has painted well over a hundred murals, but since 2013 he has painted 42 You Are Loved murals in nine states.

It took a few years of seeking out spaces, finding people to get behind the idea and creating the You Are Loved murals for Cook’s movement to catch on. He wanted to have something to show people versus just telling them about it. Since then, it has been easy for people to rally around this concept because “it [is] not foreign to anybody. Everybody [is] like, ‘Oh yeah, of course we think this,’” Cook said.

For the project, 2017 was its most productive year yet. Over the course of the year, Cook painted about 15 You Are Loved murals across the country and in a variety of places. He said that these murals are in very wealthy private schools, homeless shelters, prisons, a number of different worship communities and now in Burlington.

One of the most special things about the Burlington mural is that it was created in partnership with the US Attorney’s Office. Beside the large lettering of the mural, in Cook’s handwriting, it says, “Addicted? Need help? Dial 211. US Attorney’s Office, District of VT, Supporting victims of drug and human trafficking.”

Aimee Stearns, the Victim Witness Coordinator for the US Attorney’s Office, contacted Cook upon seeing his work. Stearns works with victims affected by a variety of cases that her office is prosecuting.

In recent years, she has seen a rise in human trafficking cases and victims. “It’s important to recognize that human trafficking is not new. Human trafficking has gone unrecognized for a long time,” Stearns said. “Still today, if you ask the average person on the street, they will say, ‘Human trafficking? That doesn’t happen in Vermont, does it?’”

When asked about human trafficking, Cook admitted that he was not particularly educated on the issue, but he said the Burlington mural was a special connection to have his message serve. “It’s really my favorite when this message, which is so positive and so pure and confident, can go to places that are really dark. It feels very powerful to say, ‘Yes, even here, you know, even in this prison, even in this place where obviously some things have really gone wrong in people’s lives, that this notion of being loved is unchanged. It’s there,’” Cook said.

In June 2017, Cook came to Vermont to design and paint the mural on Cherry Street. He made the initial outline and then the mural was filled in by victims, friends and family, federal employees, and all who happened to pass by that day. Having painted a number of these in different communities, Cook said that it can be a transformative experience for people, because it allows them to get out of their comfort zones and away from the fear that they are going to mess it up. “It comes out great and they actually feel the feeling of having contributed to something that’s really notable,” Cook said.

For the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Stearns, this was an event to remind Vermont that human trafficking victims are members of our community. By having this mural in such a prominent and public place, Stearns said it is a reminder to victims that their community recognizes and loves them. “In that message, we hope that it will inspire them to take steps to realize their value and to become healthier members of our community,” Stearns said.

By the end of his time in Vermont, Cook had a new outlook on some of the work that our government does. “The fact that they were using my project to reach out to women who are really suffering, I thought, ‘My god, this is heroic!’” Cook said. “The work that they’re doing is so hidden in legal language, but what they’re doing is like superhero stuff. It’s like, this is love! This is an official sense of people loving each other. People’s lives are getting hurt by something very dangerous and bad and here is a government agency doing something that expresses a community’s care for itself. That was super impressive to me.”

The You Are Loved movement has spoken to a number of people, regardless of their situation, due to Cook’s initial question: Why be subtle about something so needing clarity? His decision to be direct and simply say, “You Are Loved,” has, he feels, changed so many lives. As a final note, he invites anybody and everybody to think of where there is a wall in their community that could use one of these murals.

“This is the beginning of this project and it’s clear to me that basically anywhere you go, there’s somebody who is suffering in one way or another. Just consider the potential healing and uplifting effects of having one of these in a place where you live,” he said.

To see all of the You Are Loved murals, visit www.youarelovedmurals.com.

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You are loved: Mural addresses human trafficking in Vermont