In downtown Iowa City, the tired brick walls of local businesses have been given new life and are now home to colorful, vibrant murals that passersby can’t help but notice. Created by Thomas Agran, the director of public art for the Iowa City Downtown District (ICDD), the Mural Project aims to bring artistic liveliness to the city’s downtown area, including its Pedestrian Mall, where thousands of residents and students from the nearby University of Iowa campus traverse daily.
Scattered around downtown, like on the side of the Iowa City Public Library or hidden in an alleyway, the most eye-catching of the murals rises 45-feet high and is full of brightly colored flowers, bugs and animals. Dubbed Coexist, this mural is different than the rest, as it was designed by artist Sayuri Hemann along with youth from the local United Action for Youth (UAY) program.
Ages 14 to 18, the youth collaborated with Hemann during brainstorming sessions to come up with the Coexist concept, as well as painting the mural itself. While selected artists created the rest of the murals, Agran modeled this particular mural off of an art program in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he grew up. A core element of the Cincinnati program, Artworks, is youth employment, which sparked Agran's idea of incorporating a similar tactic for Iowa City’s mural project.
“We had a huge empty wall in Iowa City that has called out for a mural for decades,” says Agran. “It felt like a great fit for a partnership in the same spirit as Artworks. Prominent walls come with a lot of pressure, and I liked what it says about our community that our youth can have such a large and visible platform, as well as what it says to those kids about the value of their voice and their ability to change the face of their community. What a powerful lesson to get at a young age.”
Roughly two dozen teens were involved during the brainstorming sessions, where they and Hemann finalized on the Coexist theme after sharing ideas on how different ecosystems and the plants and animals within them live in harmony. After finalizing their design concept, the youth and Hemann painted the mural at the UAY site in smaller, individual pieces on a material called Polytab, which allowed the mural to be painted on ground-level. Hemann and Agran then installed the individual pieces together to make it whole.
“The process is something that is used commonly in Philadelphia's mural program and is a great way to work with all ages and experience levels on a large-scale mural project, without sending everyone 40 feet into the air,” says Agran.
Agran says that the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, with people telling him that downtown feels brighter, friendlier and more exciting. “The murals have energized downtown and helped create a lively, productive discourse around public art in the community as a whole. A gallon of paint goes a long way in both tangible and intangible ways… I am continually amazed.”
Hemann says that she hopes passersby will soak up the energy and sentiment that are embodied in the mural. “We are in this world together, and we are all interconnected,” she explains. “We need to find a way to live with each other in harmony, celebrate our differences and learn from one another. When ‘me’ becomes ‘we’ and ‘they’ become ‘us,’ we as a society will leap forward.”
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Agran adds that great partners are essential and can appear in unexpected places.
“The UAY mural was a perfect marriage between United Action for Youth's relationships and trust with the kids they work with, the incredible vision, energy and spirit of the lead artist Sayuri, and project management and hands-on experience I could bring to the mural,” he says. “Public art can sometimes feel generic or soulless, and part of the charisma of a project has to do with how it speaks to context. Partnering with local groups helps not just get direct community buy-in to spread ownership, but also helps ensure that the mural really does speak authentically.”
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He notes that murals are inexpensive and ultimately not permanent, as they can evolve over time and are one of the best mediums to speak to the present day.
Thomas Agran himself is responsible for the downtown Iowa City postcard mural, which he created in May 2017 before taking his new position at the ICDD.
“There is a way for those who frequently feel disenfranchised to have a voice. Communities and local governments that trust those who propose the crazy or controversial will reap the greatest rewards. Encourage them. Build partnerships. And always remember, it never hurts to ask.”
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