Community To Vote & Inspire The New Forest Hills Eco-Mural

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Behind The Brush with NYC Artist ErinKelli Kilbane

Branching Out with The Compost Collective

The Forest Hills Eco-Mural Site

Public art is a gift for the masses, and another most meaningful gift is a collective power to maintain the environment. In the coming months, a fusion of the two will take root through the “Voices on the Wall: The Forest Hills Eco-Mural,” where community residents can not only vote for the earthy imagery, but paint with Forest Hills’-own and citywide artist ErinKelli Kilbane and The Compost Collective. Adjacent to the organization’s gardening site is a 180-foot by 18-foot white stone wall that spans an abandoned trestle on Yellowstone Boulevard and Kessel Street. Throughout this summer, it will be transformed into a community beacon and a destination, fostering further environmental stewardship. 

Community members can complete a Google form to shape the content of the mural: as well as follow on Instagram @thecompostcollectivefh and @erinkelli_k for updates. Anyone who is at least nine years of age (accompanied by a parent) can paint, and no experience is necessary. On weekends in July and August from 12 PM to 2 PM, teaching artists will guide participants on site.  

Over a decade ago, the highly beneficial nonprofit, The Compost Collective, embarked on a mission to empower our community through sustainable environmental practices and environmental education. The core team is comprised of longtime Forest Hills residents Carlos Pesantes, his wife Renee Rivera, and Maritza Navarro, and they are routinely joined by hands-on volunteers.

“As The Compost Collective grew during the pandemic and foot traffic increased nearby, the blank canvas became more obvious, and the opportunity to create something beautiful increased,” said Rivera. They all drew from the pandemic’s stress. “No one in our community was spared. We wanted to celebrate coming out of darkness, and the light at the end of the tunnel that kept us moving forward,” added Pesantes.  

“Beyond the planned mural’s transformative artistic beauty, its social impact will aim to promote interconnectedness through the arts, encourage environmental awareness, and bring attention to The Compost Collective as a local resource,” said artist ErinKelli Kilbane. By showcasing visual messages, she feels that the mural has the power to educate residents on local environmental challenges and actionable solutions. “Through the online survey, the community will share their thoughts for the mural’s images and messages,” she said.   

Outdoor acrylic house paint will be used, and to date, the wall has been primed. The etched stone marker bearing “1908” will be preserved, and Kilbane and The Compost Collective will continue to maintain greenery near the wall.  

Rivera and Pesantes shared their vision for the mural. “It will convey the present surroundings and our hopes for a healthy and balanced environment in our strong community,” she said. The collective features an apiary, a hen house, coop and run, and offers vermi-composting. “Perhaps the artist will bless us with some representation of these. We also want to celebrate life, so perhaps there will be vivid, happy colors. We hope to create something inspiring, and in the long-term, we hope to produce a sustainable platform for education, the arts, and the enrichment of our community,” said Pesantes.   

Maritza Navarro, Carlos Pesantes, & Renee Rivera, The Compost Collective core team

Since the mural survey launched in late May, a few dozen votes have been submitted. Kilbane explained, “Feedback generally centers around concepts of the interconnection of the natural environment, requests for depictions of sites in Forest Hills, and lots of nature suggestions, including bees.” She develops initial sketches by analyzing public responses and creating a pie chart. Then she will integrate it with preferred imagery of The Compost Collective in addition to her ideas. Sketches are already underway, and will continue to be redrawn, enabling all participants to shape the mural. “So far, I have included vibrant colors along with bees, a honeycomb, composting, the earth in hands, and indigenous plants, flowers, and trees,” said Kilbane.   

Through this collaborative mural project, residents can be educated and feel inspired, and its location bears a great potential to engage a diverse audience that is local and non-native. Kilbane explained, “Public art is uniquely accessible and enables a wider audience to experience art inclusively outside traditional cultural institutions. It sparks curiosity and ignites conversation, both about the world of art and the society we share. It is a consistent invitation to reflect on our connections and the larger picture.”

The mural will become a lasting symbol of community spirit and bridge the gap between residents and local sustainability efforts, offering a platform for the community to express their vision for a healthy, restorative future and inspire social change, according to Kilbane. “This impactful initiative will not only beautify the neighborhood with a message of environmental responsibility, but foster social and emotional engagement, and deepen our understanding of community identity and culture. This multi-phased approach will culminate in a celebratory public event. Firstly, residents’ ideas for the mural’s imagery empower their voices as community members. Designated ‘Community Paint Days’ will enable community members to feel connected.”

Kilbane visualizes The Forest Hills Eco-Mural project as a scalable model for inspiring citywide murals. “Its success can inspire a wave of community-driven environmental art, not only promoting sustainability efforts and fostering a collective sense of responsibility for our planet’s well-being, but bridge future collaborations,” she said.   

Kilbane pinpointed goals in the name of art, the earth, and composting. In the short-term, art would increase accessibility of art education and build experiences for everyone. “This could encompass virtual museum tours, public pop-up art installations, and grant programs for under-resourced communities,” she said. As for the long-term, she explained, “We could foster a society where art is valued and integrated into daily life. This could involve collaborations with businesses to support the arts.” To safeguard the planet, she aspires to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy sources. “Let’s also highlight The Compost Collective’s public awareness campaigns about energy conservation. In the long-term, let’s help restore balance to the Earth’s ecosystems. This is a massive challenge that will require international cooperation, but change starts with one.”

NYC artist & muralist ErinKelli Kilbane

Increasing composting awareness and encouraging participation in various communities can be achieved through educational campaigns, community composting programs, and demonstrating available resources. As for the long-term, she said, “Let’s create a sustainability model that is scalable to form other collectives.”  

For nearly three years, Kilbane resides in Queens, but was raised in Staten Island. At nearly 34 years old, she is an artistic dynamo who takes pride in being a third-grade special education teacher and a first-grade to third-grade art teacher at a Glendale public school. She produces independent works of art, commissions pieces, teaches art for several nonprofits, and operates a studio, gallery, and theater in Staten Island. She achieved a Bachelors of Painting and Drawing and a minor in art history from SUNY Purchase, and holds a Master’s of Science in Childhood Education from PACE University.  

Since 2013, Kilbane is known for her distinctive hand-painted street murals, which have become a tool for community engagement. She has also coordinated and participated in beautification initiatives and events with organizations, including the Cultural Affairs Department, Department of Transportation, Department of Education, New York Public Library, Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, The Staten Island Museum, Sundog Theatre, and Hub17NYC.  

“I have been interested in art since I was very young, and took classes in and out of school. The Forest Hills Eco-Mural will be the first project that I am spearheading in Queens. Most large-scale works are in Staten Island, although I have works in the tri-state area,” said Kilbane. Some of her noteworthy murals include “Waves On Wave Street” (August 2023) and “The Cargo Color Connection” (August 2021). 

Pesantes has called Forest Hills home since 2008 and immigrated to America from Lima, Peru in the early 1980s. He has been employed by the NYC Health Department since 2007 and currently as an exercise and evaluation program manager, where he identifies gaps and capabilities, and discovers ways of improving capabilities. He achieved a degree in Biology and Anthropology from Queens College. 

As a humanitarian, Pesantes provided emergency assistance in response to Hurricane Sandy, Ebola, Legionella, Zika, and Measles outbreaks, as well as Covid. After feeling disheartened by a lack of responsiveness to environmental issues, he joined a local CSA, launched a food scrap drop-off in Forest Hills, and took the initiative as a master composter. The Compost Collective was founded in 2012, and today serves over 500 households in the Forest Hills vicinity. “This initiative addressed food waste at the source, counter-balanced habitual consumerism, and reduced carbon footprints,” he said.  

Rivera also lives in Forest Hills since 2008, and was raised in Savannah, Georgia and Upstate New York. She is a legal social worker with a Master’s in Clinical Social Work. “I am interested in gardening, decorating and design, organizing, baking, reading, and hiking. I am enjoying therapeutic horticulture classes at New York Botanical Garden, and hope to combine the world of social work and gardening for the community at The Compost Collective in the near future,” she explained. 

The Compost Collective compiles food scraps and yard waste, which is diverted from landfills for repurposing into compost. In turn, soil is remediated, which decreases leachate and greenhouse gasses and results in healthy soil and land resilience. Pesantes and Rivera explained, “We share the understanding that soil is a vital, living life source that must be protected for future generations. We supply local wildlife with the food and habitat they need to survive by adding native plants and practicing organic, sustainable gardening. Our educational, therapeutic, and recreational opportunities are available to all ages, and include everything from beekeeping to therapeutic horticulture. We live with the fundamental understanding that everything is connected, and the key to life is balance.”  

Sundays’ Forest Hills Greenmarket on Queens Boulevard discontinued its composting initiative, causing residents to embrace other composting sites. “We are that alternative, the only compost site in Central Queens. We are here for our community, and the community shows up for us,”said Pesantes. 

Periodically, the trestle’s blank wall and the nearby stretch has been targeted. Pesantes explained, “The wall has been targeted by vandals using graffiti tags to demarcate their territory. There is also illegal dumping despite patrols of the 112th Precinct. If you pass by on a Saturday, the community can see kids and adults from the community cleaning up the area. We will be treating the mural with a special protection to make graffiti easier to clean.”

Unfortunately, in the name of greed and insensitivity, Forest Hills and Rego Park lost some major murals and sculptures by acclaimed artists over the decades. Rivera and Pesantes envision a creative and unique public art trail through murals, sculpture, and classical architecture. They explained, “It would be lovely to have that again. Perhaps this time, we will learn from our past and appreciate what we have in the present. Often in environmentalism, it is the same way, where people don’t appreciate what they have until a species is lost or a habitat is lost.”

They embrace the very relevant statement, “If you see something, say something.” Rivera said, “We need community buy-in and engagement. We need people coming to volunteer to clean up and paint. We need people to be vigilant and call the police if they spot illegal dumping or people tagging walls and defacing our community.”    

Waves On Wave mural in Staten Island by ErinKelli Kilbane

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