‘A mural is better than a brick wall’
It’s spring and gardens are bursting with color. Some large walls around the region will soon be bursting with color too thanks to several mural projects planned for this year.
A democratic type of art
Janis Mars Wunderlich, an Assistant Professor of Art at Monmouth College, said murals are incredibly democratic in that the art comes to the people.
“You don’t have to pay admission and go to an art museum to see them. They’re on the side of the building. They’re meant to be enjoyed by the public and they’re meant to represent the interests of the community,” she said.
Wunderlich said the very first works taught about in the college’s art history class are cave paintings from 25,000 to 30,000 B.C.E.
“And it’s right at that moment where we start to see humans starting to think imaginatively, and we’re starting to see stories being told on the walls of caves. And this is the time that we can sort of visually see higher cognitive thinking,” she said.
Wunderlich said murals provide a burst of color where previously there had been a blank or nondescript space. And she said some of the best mural art she has seen has been in small towns.
Kat Myers, Chairperson of the Department of Art and Design at Western Illinois University, said murals help bring a little bit of spice to a community.
“A mural is better than a brick wall. It gives a lot of color and it draws attention” she said.
Myers is especially enthused about a mural being created by Bill Howard, a Professor of Art & Design at WIU. It is one of the murals either in the works or recently completed around the tri states.
The Macomb Beautiful Association (MBA) mural
The MBA hired Howard to come up with a mural to commemorate the group’s 50th anniversary. It will be unveiled in June, 2022.
Howard is creating the piece on 24 aluminum panels. Each section is four feet by eight feet.
He projected the image of each section’s portion of the overall mural onto the panels and drew the outline of that image. He has an elaborate system of labeling to note what color paints should be used.
The panels will be bolted to the north wall of Gelsosomo’s Pizzeria, 221 N. Randolph St.
“The beauty of this (using panels) is we can take these panels – they’re the same front and back – and we can change the mural every five years or so if we want to. Just turn it around (and) paint a new one,” he said.
Howard said he also chose to use panels because it allowed him to work on the project throughout the winter. But he has also painted murals directly onto buildings, as he did with the mural on The Old Dairy in downtown Macomb.
The MBA mural will end up measuring 12 feet high by 60 feet long.
“I enjoy making art at a grand scale. I really do. And I think when you have an opportunity to make something better for the people that come behind you, you gotta jump on it. You just have to or you’re wasting your time,” Howard said. “The more art the better.”
He said the mural depicts the region -- farms, barns, butterflies, and the landscape. Fellow artists are helping him do the painting, which will involve a fair amount of mixing paints.
“Colors in nature don’t come right out of a can,” Howard noted.
He said the project has been a lot of work but also a lot of fun, and he said murals should look interesting from a distance and up close.
The MBA raised money to pay for the project.
Martha Neff of Keokuk said Keokuk Walldogs is an all-volunteer organization. She said the idea for the group started with her art students at Keokuk High School, who kept talking about how they would like to paint a mural in town. The organization then took shape after she retired from teaching and attended an international Walldogs gathering.
“I graduated from WIU in art education and I love painting. After retirement I didn’t want to sit in a studio by myself and paint by myself. I wanted to be around creative people,” Neff said.
“(Painting a mural) is like a quilting bee. You get together with friends. You make new friends. You meet all kinds of people and a cross-section of the community is sitting together doing something constructive. And then in the end we have something our town can be proud of.”
Neff said Keokuk Walldogs volunteers have learned what works and what doesn’t work, and she’s willing to share that with others interested in creating murals. She said the group has already completed several murals that are high quality and should last 20 years or more.
She said they’re painting onto a material made specifically for murals that was described to her as being parachute-like. Once a mural is done, it can be applied like wallpaper to a wall or aluminum panels.
Keokuk Walldogs is now creating another mural. It will be mounted on the wall that runs along Water Street between Main Street and the lock and dam.
“We could definitely beautify that spot,” said Neff, adding the mural will be 40 feet long and 10 feet high, and will be visible from Victory Park and Water Street.
That project will be funded by the Golden Oak Society, the city, and Ron and Mary Ginsberg. She said the Walldogs group works under the Keokuk Cultural and Entertainment District with the help of Joyce Glascock, who’s the retired Main Street director.
Neff believes murals are popular right now because it can be difficult for communities to maintain older buildings, many of which had interesting architecture but are deteriorating or have been demolished.
“Murals are a relatively inexpensive way to beautify a community, to make a statement, to create something that the community can be proud of,” Neff said. “There’s just not the emphasis on aesthetics anymore (with newer buildings). Communities can’t afford to hire artisans to do what they once did.”
The Art Center of Burlington mural
This mural will cover the art center’s east wall, from the corner all the way down to the Capitol Theater, and will be painted directly onto the bricks.
Elizabeth Pappas, Associate Director of the Art Center of Burlington, said they met with local artists to brainstorm ideas.
“We came up with a design that allows multiple artists to participate,” she said.
“The artists are all so different, which is fun and exciting. Our design is uniform but you will see each artist’s style and they will be able to shine in their specific ways. This will be a fun mural to see.”
She also said it will allow residents and visitors to see the artistic diversity in Burlington, and that the public will have plenty of opportunities to watch the artists at work.
“Our plan is to paint every Thursday evening during farmers market. (This) allows for the community to watch and anticipate witnessing the progress each week,” Pappas said.
She hopes it inspires more public art in the community
“You can never have too much art, and I’m very passionate about the thought of public art,” Pappas said.
“We are so excited to be a part of this mural movement. We believe that public art shows an active, engaged community. It underscores our pride for where we live, and that we value and promote artistic expression.”
The mural will be funded through the arts center. Pappas said the Des Moines Community Foundation generously helped with the project. She said the art center is still accepting other donations to pay for creating the mural as well as to help fund its maintenance and upkeep.
The Reverend C.T. Vivian mural in Macomb
Jock Hedblade, Executive Director of the Macomb Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (Unforgettable Forgottonia), said the Reverend C.T. Vivian was a hometown hero and a giant in the American Civil Rights movement.
“If there was a Mount Rushmore of the Civil Rights movement, C.T. would be one of them. He was one of the original people - before Martin Luther King, before John Lewis,” Hedblade said. “We need to take pride in that.”
Artist Michael Mahoney is in charge of creating the mural, which depicts Dr. Vivian in his later years looking over his life.
Hedblade said, “In 76 feet it really kind of encompasses a lot of this man’s life and what he did.”
Mahoney will do much of the painting. Hedblade said there are plans for the public to be involved but the details aren’t yet hammered out. Part of the idea behind the mural is to bring the community together.
Last fall, Mahoney created an outline of the mural, which will be painted on the north wall of the building at 135 N. Randolph St., just a block from the Macomb Beautiful Association’s forthcoming mural.
Hedblade said the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which Vivian belonged to, is helping pay for the mural. Community donations and fundraisers, including a fundraiser May 26 at The Wine Sellers, will also help offset the cost.
He hopes the mural raises awareness about the plan to build a center of civil and social engagement at the site of Vivian’s childhood home, which is currently a vacant lot on East Adams Street in Macomb. Organizers of that project and Unforgettable Forgottonia are also involved with making the Reverend Vivian mural become a reality.
The Tin Cup mural in Monmouth
Recent Monmouth College graduate Rebecca Quick created the piece along with another fairly recent Monmouth College graduate, Kendall Thompson. The two had not worked together previously but hit it off quickly as they created the mural.
Quick said they tried to reflect the Maple City’s history and create a sense of community.
“It literally says ‘You matter’ on the wall. We’re trying to be inclusive as well as represent the community of Monmouth,” Quick said,
The mural also portrays symbols of local culture such as a maple tree, the Buchanan Center for the Arts, and bagpipes for Monmouth College.
The mural can be seen on the north wall of The Tin Cup, a coffe shop and deli at 226 S. Main St. It’s 42 feet high and 100 feet long.
Quick said Tin Cup owners Mike and Janice Sheid wanted a realistic looking mural of Wyatt Earp, trains, and other elements of Monmouth history.
The artists liked the ideas and came back with sketches of what the owners wanted. But they also showed the Sheids some sketches of historical components done in a more abstract style.
“And they said, ‘Oh my goodness, this seems like the perfect fit. You guys do what you need to do with it and make it the way you guys want it and we’ll see if it looks right.’ And they agreed on it,” Quick said.
Quick said she and Thompson both like bright colors so it just made sense to make the mural bright and cheery.
Kristyne Gilbert, Executive Director of the Buchanan Center for the Arts in Monmouth, said the project was made possible by funding from Galesburg Community Foundation, Warren County United Way, Illinois Arts Council Agency, Smithfield, and Blick Art Materials.
A few other murals
Work is underway on at least a couple other murals in the region, and one in Macomb was completed last summer.
Embracing the past while painting our future in Burlington. Each year participants in the Greater Burlington Leadership program work together on a project to improve the community. This year they chose to have a mural painted on the exterior wall of the Jennison Building in the 400 block of North Main Street. The mural will be highly visible to people crossing the bridge from Illinois into Burlington. The class raised more than $12,000 for the project. The unveiling and ribbon cutting will take place on Monday, May 16, at 4:30 p.m.
We are stronger together in Macomb. This mural is being painted at Prairieview Townhomes and will face the basketball court there. Partners include The Housing Authority of McDonough County, Lincoln Tattoo, Sherwin Williams, Performing Arts Society, and the Community News Brief.
What You Feed Will Grow, which was painted last summer on a metal garage door on the north side of the Western Illinois Museum in Macomb. You can read about it here.
Tri States Public Radio produced this story. TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.