A Collegetown mural memorializes loved ones lost to illness

Yerkezhan Abuova’s grandmothers both died in Kazakhstan, far from her and under difficult circumstances. But in a bright Collegetown mural, they’re smiling, surrounded by a deer, a rabbit, tulips and waterlilies.

“I think it makes my parents happy, because they can see their moms in heaven,” says Abuova ’23, an art major in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP).

“It makes them feel better, like their mothers are watching over me and are happy.”

Abuova’s mural is one of 13 in the Dryden Road Garage, including three by other Cornell students. Abuova, who goes by Yerke, worked with Paul Ramírez Jonas, professor of art in AAP, and Caleb Thomas, founder and facilitator of Ithaca Murals, a grassroots organization that helps artists transform Ithaca’s walls into works of art.

The mural “Fish and Ballerinas” was painted by Steav Kim ’19 in 2015 in the Dryden Road Garage. The piece is next to a mural by Yerkezhan Abuova ’23.

“Murals can bring a sense of a humanity to a blank wall,” Thomas says. “We have successfully shifted our cultural cityscape to reflect the beautiful, diverse people who live here. I’m grateful to Yerke for being part of this cultural shift and honoring this complicated time of COVID-19.”

Abuova, whose family is from Kazakhstan, witnessed her parents struggle when their own parents died. Her paternal grandmother, Zhibek Bakhtai Kyzy, died in Kazakhstan in March 2021 from COVID when her breathing tube failed and the hospital didn’t have a replacement. And when her maternal grandmother, Khadisha Kikimbai Kyzy, died in 2018 of various health issues after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, her mother wasn’t able to return Kazakhstan in time to be with her.

“When they both died, it wasn’t the best situation,” says Abuova. “I don’t think my family got closure from that.”

Through the mural, she tried to offer that closure to her parents, and to others who have lost loved ones to illness.

Abuova began thinking about creating it in spring 2021. With an eye toward making a living as an artist after graduation, she wanted to explore the mural format, imagining an accessible piece. She discovered Ithaca Murals and reached out to Thomas.

Then her grandmother died of COVID.

“I started thinking about making a memorial, because I think a lot of people can relate to that right now,” she says.

Working from photographs, she sketched a design using colored pencils and collaborated with Thomas to find a location. In April, she applied to the City of Ithaca for permission to paint at the Dryden Road Garage, which was approved in August.

Ishan Ethridge ’24 painted “Mechanical Doodles” in the Dryden Road Garage in 2020.

The piece is next to a mural by Steav Kim ’19, who created “Fish and Ballerinas” in 2015. Ishan Ethridge ’24 painted “Mechanical Doodles” and “Snail” in the garage in 2020.

Abuova began working on the mural during the fall semester as an independent study, with Ramírez Jonas as an adviser.

Ramírez Jonas, who specializes in public art, came to the garage weekly to see her progress and discuss readings on public art and artists. “In my mind, he really expanded what a mural could be,” she says.

The project stretched her as an artist, Abuova says. She usually works in the studio, using oil paints on standard-sized canvases. It was tough getting used to the larger scale. “When the painting works well from far away, it looks strange up close, and vice versa,” she says. It was the first time she had used exterior house paint – donated by Ithaca Murals – which dries faster than oils. And during one work session, she had been painting for three hours when rain washed away her progress. “I learned working outside of an art studio, your canvas is much more difficult,” she says. “I think now I can do anything.”

Her aim with the mural was to focus on the positive, she said.

“The goal was for the mural to be a happy addition to the garage and serve as a memorial for my grandmothers,” she says. “And people can see their own grandmas and loved ones within the mural too.”