ITHACA, N.Y.—At a ribbon-cutting ceremony held on Monday, artists, community members, and clinic staff gathered at the Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (CARS) building on Plain Street to unveil Ithaca’s latest mural. Spanning all 160 feet of CARS’ Plain Street wall, the mural is the largest in Ithaca. 

Creation of the mural was facilitated by Ithaca Murals, the group responsible for much of the public art found on Ithaca’s walls, construction barriers, and electrical boxes. The project has been in the works for several months, after CARS reached out to Ithaca Murals’ founder and facilitator Caleb Thomas. CARS officials were interested in working with an artist to create a mural able to be displayed on their building. 

The mural is a collaboration between Philadelphia-based artists Betsy Casañas and Mauricio Peréz, and represents struggles with addiction through symbolic depictions of a garden. 

“Because it’s a program that focuses on recovery and addiction, when we were designing [the mural] there’s a lot of symbolism,” Casañas said. “We’ve been playing with the idea of healing symbolically being represented by a garden. You take care of a garden, or a flower, and it’ll grow. It’s like this back and forth with the idea of recovery. It’s hard—it’s a lot of work, it takes time, it takes effort, and so does a garden.”

The two-story mural features a flurry of butterflies bursting from a lush garden of flowers interwoven with peacock feathers, a hand emerging from the mural’s base, and a woman being comforted as she sits wrapped in a blanket.

Though this is Casañas and Peréz’s first mural together, their partnership seemed obvious to them. “We have a similar color palette, so [that’s] one of the reasons we decided to work together, that similarity. We’re Latin, so we are full color,” Peréz said. 

Peréz, who mainly works in paper mache, was approached by Casañas, a veteran muralist of thirty years to collaborate on the ambitious project.

To Peréz, the metaphor of the butterfly’s transformation is exceptionally potent: “The idea for me was so obvious. How, from something ugly [a caterpillar] can something come [that is] really soft, light, and full of color? To transform is the only way to grow” he said, when asked about the inspiration behind his contributions to the mural.

CARS serves both Tompkins and surrounding counties, providing addiction recovery services including an opioid treatment program, therapy groups for opioid dependence, and long-term comprehensive residential treatment for addiction. For over 50 years the organization has been at the forefront of innovations in the treatment of addiction, and is looking to expand in the coming months—opening an outpatient department in Cortland and launching a mobile clinic to bring treatments for opiate addiction to rural communities. 

Betsy Casañas and Mauricio Peréz after the completion of their mural. Credit: Photo provided

Katarina Wehemeyer, nurse manager at CARS explained the importance of the mural to CARS mission. 

“[We] thought it would make this neighborhood more beautiful and bring a lot of joy to our direct neighbors,” Wehemeyer said. “We wanted to display a message that ties into the work we do as a substance use treatment agency and show the experience of substance use and substance use treatment, recovery, hope, connection and community.”

Thomas emphasized that though the services provided by CARS are targeted towards those in need, the mural is relevant to all Ithacans. 

“Something i like to think about is that while this building is engaging with people that are particularly impacted by the law and addiction in that way, we all have our sh*t. We all have our work to do on ourselves to better ourselves […] And I love [that] the theme of this mural is that the opposite of addiction is connection.”