Luisa Harris is a Boston-based community arts leader, curator, and cultural entrepreneur. In 2021 Harris Co-Founded the Mission Hill Arts Festival (MHAF) alongside her husband, Kevin Harris—an internationally recognized jazz pianist, composer, and music educator (Harris is an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music).
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced performing artists off the stage and visual artists out of Boston-area galleries, the Harris’ posited that they might be able to shift some of these activities to outdoor community spaces. This led to the formation of a multidisciplinary summer arts festival in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood, where the Harris’ have been longtime residents. Mission Hill is an urban neighborhood centrally located between Boston’s Orange and Green subway lines and is within walking distance to the Longwood Medical Area, Fenway Park, and several universities and museums. According to Boston Magazine, Mission Hill maintains a “small neighborhood vibe while remaining one of Boston’s most diverse areas.” Celebrating and nurturing this diversity and sense of community was, in fact, one of the Harris’ primary goals when formulating the festival. According to the Harris’, they saw the festival as a “catalyst” that would bring together residents of all ages—students, professionals, artists, and organizations. They also hoped the festival would help support local businesses.
In early 2021, once the Harris’ had committed to launching the festival—their next act was to reach out to Dan Vlahos. Vlahos is an Assistant Professor and Director of Merrimack College’s Graphic Design Program who for many years was also a resident in Mission Hill. The Harris’ knew that Vlahos had experience working in and with the Mission Hill community. For the arts festival, the Harris’ knew they needed a visual identity that would powerfully promote and communicate the events and also resonate with the community. To do this, they turned to Vlahos, who approached the project as an embedded, publicly-engaged designer, consultant, and scholar.
To assist with the project, Vlahos brought on Felicia Fishel ‘21, then a senior in Merrimack’s undergraduate Graphic Design Program. Fishel worked on the project for several months under Vlahos’ guidance and mentorship of Vlahos. For 2021, working within the theme “inspire,” Vlahos and Fishel developed a colorful and memorable visual identity for the festival’s inaugural year. According to Fishel, the primary graphic they proposed “abstractly represented a flower.” This graphic was paired with typography designed by Vicente Lamónaca, a South American type designer. Vlahos says the resultant campaign “felt both community-based and international in character.”
With sizable crowds and diverse audiences in attendance, the inaugural festival was a success. Ms. Harris, who served as curator, presented seven performing and visual arts events, starting in late June and continuing through late August.
It was no surprise then that in late 2021, Vlahos received another call from the Harris.’ For the 2022 festival, Vlahos brought on Merrimack Graphic Design alum Jeff LoPilato ‘18 to assist.
Now in its third year and with Vlahos continuing to guide the visual identity for the 2023 festival, Vlahos brought on Merrimack student Marc Gonzalez to assist with the festival’s visual identity for year three. Gonzalez is currently studying Business Administration and minoring in Graphic Design. Gonzalez is on track to graduate from Merrimack in 2024 and serves as Vice President of Merrimack’s American Marketing Association student group. “The Arts Festival project allowed me to explore communication design and marketing through the lens of a growing community-and-culturally based initiative,” Gonzalez says. Referring to Gonzalez, Vlahos states, “With his strategic, marketing, and design skills, Marc was hugely valuable—especially as we formulated a strategy and developed initial design concepts for 2023.”
In late 2022, the promotional posters for the 2021 and 2022 Mission Hill Arts Festival were selected to be exhibited in the MassArt x SoWa gallery as part of a juried design exhibition. The posters remained on view from November 2022–January 2023 as part of the MassArt x SoWa Design Biennial. According to Vlahos, who spent the first half of his career in design practice, “Designers working within a cultural or public context are not always recognized as prominently as commercial or history-focused design researchers.” This, however, according to Vlahos, is changing. Vlahos points to recent research efforts in Switzerland to more explicitly document and celebrates examples of “cultural graphic design” and Imagineering America, an organization that supports publicly engaged artists and scholars. In this way, Vlahos says, “Graphic designers can and should engage with non-profit organizations and communities.” As it enters its third year the Mission Hill Arts Festival has gained significant traction and momentum. The 2023 festival has received grant funding from Celebrity Series of Boston and others.
Finally, Vlahos notes that, “The Mission Hill Arts Festival demonstrates how community leaders, artists, designers, and scholars can collaborate to facilitate culturally-engaged initiatives, create positive change, and develop new cultural knowledge.”
Tickets for the 2023 Mission Hill Arts Festival are now on sale and can be purchased through the MHAF website.