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Young Artists Explore Community With Bloomington Mural Project

Inside the Constitution Trail tunnel under Washington Street in Bloomington, young artist Eden Warner painted a giant letter “B” with lots of green trees.

It was the start of the word "Bloomington," Day 2 of a mural-painting project being completed by Eden and 11 other young artists. Eden is used to painting on canvas and drawing. So what's it like to paint on a giant concrete wall?

Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Young artist Eden Warner at the unveiling of the mural on Saturday, July 14, 2018.

“It’s a lot different. Especially this wall. It’s got a lot of texture. There’s quite a few holes in it that we had to color in,” she said.

Eden is from Hudson. She starts high school next month. 

“I enjoy doing my art in my own time. I was kind of iffy about this (project) because we had to sketch our own stuff before we got here. And I’m not used to just showing random people my art. It was a little iffy, but now I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’” 

And now she has what a lot of artists dream about—her art on permanent display for the world to see every day.

“It’s going to be great. This is a great idea. I like being a part of this,” she said. 

The mural is the first big public project of the Illinois Art Station, a new program at Illinois State University that blends civic engagement and the visual arts.

Mural spells Bloomington
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
A panoramic view of the new mural in Bloomington.

The hope is that Eden and the other young artists walk away with a better understanding of what community really means, said Isra El-Bashir, director of the Illinois Art Station.

“We want them to walk away empowered that they have a role in the community, that they have the privilege to put that creatively on a mural. We want them to feel empowered to have a voice,” she said.

Another young artist finding her voice was Isha Gollapudi from Bloomington.

Isha usually likes to do oil painting, acrylics, and pencil sketches. Last Thursday morning, she gripped a cup of brown paint and worked on the letter “M” in Bloomington. It has buildings in a city scene.

“Everybody will see everybody’s work, which is very cool,” she said.

The mural project is a joint endeavor with the City of Bloomington’s Citizens’ Beautification Committee, with the goal of empowering youth in McLean County through public art.

Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Illinois State University graduate student Katie Barko was one of the leaders of the project.

Katie Barko, a second-year graduate student at ISU in art education, has been working on the mural project for two years. Then, finally, paint went on the wall last week.

“It was kind of like an ah-ha moment. We talk a lot about that in art education, with students turning their own lightbulbs on. Yesterday was one of those moments. They came up with their sketches—that was the first step—then transferred it (onto the wall) using a grid system, and then all of a sudden, they were ready to put paint on the wall. I’ve got chills right now talking about it, because it was really inspiring to see them have this experience,” Barko said.

Barko said organizers kicked around the idea of just hiring a professional artist to do the project.

“I thought involving children would be a little bit more influential,” she said. “I would really like to see students more involved in community projects, more than just going to school. This is a good way to expose them to being involved in their community and that they are a big part of their community.”

Those young artists are still getting guidance from the professionals, including teaching artist Jeremy Langston.

“What you see is 100 percent the collaborative effort between the students and the artist. The artist basically gave them the freedom to create what they wanted. He asked them to simply think about what community means to them and what are the symbols that come to mind with the words they chose,” said El-Bashir.

There's a lot of ways for artists to comment on their community. A bunch of paintings inside an art gallery, for example. But a mural is special.

“When we think about incubating a space or revitalizing a city, you think of public art or sculptures or murals. And so this is where we felt that would be the best, most visually powerful piece we could put up to show the work of our students and the potential of working with (Illinois Art Station) as an organization. Murals can beautify a space and it’s a piece that everyone can experience,” El-Bashir said.

The dozen young artists come from diverse backgrounds and skill levels. That includes a couple students from ISU's Autism Place.

“Having access to things that all children in the community are involved in is great for anyone,” said Karla Doepke, a professor in ISU’s Department of Psychology and director of the Autism Place. “They love the art and the interaction. It’s a great opportunity to have another chance to show their skills.”

The big reveal of the youth mural project was held Saturday. You can go and check out the mural for yourself. It's located in the Washington Street bridge tunnel near Atwood-Wayside Herb Garden in Bloomington. That's right near Green Top Grocery.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.