Walk through downtown Manchester and it’s hard to miss artist Jyl Dittbenner’s handiwork.
It stretches across three sides of the Rex Theatre, adds a colorful pop to defunct pay-phone boxes and electrical-box covers, and fills the pages of a coloring book propped on display in the Bookery.
Winding her way through the downtown on a windy wintery day, Dittbenner pauses at a spruced-up alley, where felines of every shape, size and disposition prowl the walls of adjoining buildings.
“It’s a stack of cats,” she says, a grin spreading across her face as she points to several critters she added to the mix.
It’s been about seven years since Dittbenner made herself a promise to carve out time for art on a daily basis.
It’s the reason she often can be found in book shops, cafes and open-mic sessions, sketching the urban landscape and buzz of life around her in her spare time, and why her social media accounts incorporate the mantra “Jyl draws every day.”
“It is my way of seeing and making sense of the world — a little bit of meditation, prayer and being still,” she says.
The Manchester native has made a lot of friends along the way, including Liz Hitchcock, part of the Orbit Group, a family-run business which supports economic development initiatives, urban planning and community spaces.
Those efforts include the Bookery on Elm Street, where Dittbenner worked with Hitchcock on the first run (about 200 copies) of the “Colors of Manchester” coloring book. The artist also contributed to the re-do of Cat Alley outside, as well as the Factory on Willow, where she decorated concrete barriers for the outdoor Food Truck Park patio.
“The fun part of the job is creating moments of awe for people,” Hitchcock said. “Jyl has put in an impressive amount of time, effort and love into beautifying southern New Hampshire with her art and style.”
Brightening up the city
Dittbenner’s affection for her hometown shows in her murals and on her face as she walks and talks about brightening up nooks here and there. The whoops of a police cruiser edging its way through traffic and the blasts of a horn from a passing freight train don’t distract her.
It’s an urban soundtrack that echoes how much Manchester means to her.
“I like all the places, even if they’re a little darker,” she says. “I have a niece who is 13 and we walk around the city together. I feel like you have to be part of the city. You can’t just let the less desirable elements take over. Maintain your presence. I love Manchester.”
She points to a dinosaur she painted on top of graffiti on a side door of a theater.
“It’s a T-Rex for the Rex,” she says wryly.
But her journey to becoming one of the city’s burgeoning muralists didn’t follow a predictable path. As she jokes, art isn’t her full-time job.
Some of Dittbenner’s favorite childhood memories are of pulling up a seat to the kitchen table for various art projects with her best friend.
After graduating from Memorial High School, Dittbenner earned a fine arts degree at Saint Anselm College. But she then headed to Notre Dame College in Ohio to pursue a master’s degree in education and spent the following 16 years teaching young students math at small Catholic schools.
Four years ago, she veered off in another new direction.
“I work at Cirtronics Corp. in Milford as a technical trainer. We are a contract manufacturer of electronic products. I build circuit boards, work in manufacturing and train people for certification. It’s been great.”
Even there, her artistic touch can be seen in paintings in gathering spots in the office.
Dittbenner considers art a vital part of her life, and has a handful of projects in the works.
Last year, at the Manchester Citywide Arts Festival organized by the Palace Theatre, community members block-painted 4-foot by 4-foot panels that now form a backdrop for a line drawing she’s crafting of Manchester’s cityscape.
In addition, she was awarded a $10,000 Community Event and Activation Grant and is in the process of seeking city-related approvals to paint two of the pillars on the Bridge Street Bridge near Arms Park with fellow mural artist David Hady.
Dittbenner crafted a market scene in a mural on the back of the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success’ Fresh Start Farms food hub on Spruce Street, and says she’s also in the design phases for a mural inside the building.
A landscape of a resume
Dittbenner rarely shows people the sketches she makes on the spot, but she does get a kick out seeing people stop in front of one of her murals to take a closer look.
Some of the figures she crafts are composites of individuals and some are representations of specific people. Look closely at the nightlife scene of a band in mid performance on the back of the Rex Theatre on Amherst Street. New Hampshire singer and songwriter Alli Beaudry is portrayed on the ukulele, with guitar master Paul Nelson working the frets nearby.
Dittbenner’s visual resume also includes painted electrical boxes, such as the diner scene at the corner of Granite and Commercial streets and the sea of critters at the junction of Merrimack and Elm streets. She’s also turned old pay-phone stations downtown into a music box, a pizza box and a jukebox.
“It is cool walk to by and say, ‘That’s my art,” she says with a laugh. “It’s fun.”