The fierce debate over the future of the Uptown Normal mural has inspired a documentary about the controversy and the role public art plays in our lives.
“Making a Mural” documents both sides of the argument about the dispute. It was produced and directed by a quartet of recent graduates from the Illinois State University School of Communication.
Claire Bottom, Akila Howard, Ian Roberds, and Colin Connelly were attending a Documentary Storytelling and Production class in the fall of 2019 when their professor grouped them together to create their own documentary.
Roberds said each team member spent their years at ISU walking past the mural and admiring it, although they never knew the story behind its creation, nor the ensuing controversy when the Normal City Council decided to demolish the building where the mural resides. The artists who created the wall art objected and asked the town to preserve the artwork and move it to a new location. A lawsuit followed. And that’s where the student documentarians came in.
“Originally, it just started with us figuring out who was behind the mural,” Roberds explained. “One of the first people we contacted was Natalie Wetzel. She was the co-owner of The Pod, which used to be in the business where the mural was painted. Essentially, she was the mastermind behind it.”
Roberds said they also wanted to make sure to talk to the town to provide both sides of the issue. In the months that the film was in production, Roberds said he learned a great deal about the mural and those who created it.
“Going into it, it was just a colorful wall. I liked it and I thought it really helped to brighten up Uptown Normal," he said. "But I just had no idea of the impact that it had on so many people in the community.”
“One of my favorite parts of the film, we talked to one of the artists who was involved with the mural. Her name’s Janean Baird and the piece that she painted has really personal significance to her. At the time she was painting it, her husband was dealing with colon cancer.”
Baird painted a tall cross with deep roots.
“She painted it as a testament to her faith and a tribute to her husband, who ended up dying from colon cancer," said Roberds. "It was really important to hear that. We had no idea of her story going into it. But one of the arguments I’ve heard most often about not preserving the mural is that it’s just paint on a wall. It can be repainted somewhere else. Which is true, but it’s not going to be the same. For a lot of people, it is much more than just paint on a wall.”
The class documentary project was begun during ISU's Fall term. But with the spring came the pandemic, and a change in plans. Roberds said the team rolled on with its work in lockdown from their separate locations.
“It was very different,” Roberds admitted. “When we first put together the original version of the film back in December, it was all of us in the same room getting to collaborate on it, which would have been the preferred method. But then obviously once we all separated it was impossible to be physically together.
“Luckily, we were able to remotely access all our footage that we had on a server at ISU."
Not-so-luckily, they had to utilize different software than what they had previously used on campus.
“It was kind of a headache," said Roberds. "Essentially, I had to put together the whole film again. I made sure after I finished each part of it that I sent it to my teammates, and we all gave feedback.”
The months of work--together and separate--paid off for the team of filmmakers when “Making a Mural” copped an award at the Festival of Media Arts in the spring. The documentary, which is about 27 minutes including an intro by the filmmakerrs, was given the Broadcast Education Association Award of Excellence that represented the top 20 percent of the entrants. Naturally, the team was thrilled.
“It means a lot. It’s just very rewarding to know that our story was received well," said Roberds. "We felt very strongly about this story and we wanted to do it justice.”
He added that producing “Making a Mural” showed him that reporting on the local level can be impactful.
“There’s a lot of big stuff happening in our world right now. But I think it’s important to remember that change really happens at a community level. And that if we all take steps to improve our own communities, that reaches outward. That’s how you see big, permanent change happen,” said Roberds.
“Paying attention to these smaller community stories is still really important. That's what this film taught me.”
“Making a Mural” is available for viewing on YouTube.
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.