The Grand Rapids neighborhood using public murals as a catalyst for community art conversations

For non-artists, the arts can sometimes seem inaccessible. With the sheer variety of messages, media, and presentation, art can be subjective, complex, and sometimes aloof to everyday spectators.

Here in Grand Rapids, artists and designers have been working to change this perception of art for years, inviting everyone and their sister to enjoy free, public artwork in big ways — like ArtPrize, GR’s International art competition — or in smaller ones — like the Rad American Women Tour. In the Creston neighborhood, local artists have taken on art accessibility as their personal mission in the form of colorful, expansive outdoor murals. Here, among local businesses like Graydon’s Crossing and Fat Boy Burgers can be witnessed the collaborative work of artists that live or work in Creston, and hope to beautify their outdoor spaces while inviting neighbors and visitors into a moment of artistic exploration.

Central District Cyclery, 1309 Plainfield.“Art is not a necessity,” says Hannah Berry, artist and founder of Lions and Rabbits. “….You don’t need it to live…but you do need it to live.” Founding Lions and Rabbits in 2016, Berry showcases local artists, offers a full-service event space, and collaborates in community projects like workshops, yoga, and public space design like the city’s Movies on Monroe project.

One of the murals at Lions and Rabbits at 1264 Plainfield.Seeking a project “To make Creston a little bit nicer,” Berry partnered with Brianna Forbes, founder of Urban Massage, in the development of a neighborhood-wide project that sought to both beautify the neighborhood in the form of public murals and cleanup programs, and engage the community through a street party. Working with the North Quarter Corridor Improvement Board and Second Ward Commissioner Ruth Kelly, Berry and Forbes called their project Creston.After Dark, and secured funding through an MEDC-matching Patronicity campaign to not only cover event production costs, fund an ongoing neighborhood trash cleanup program, and also pay each and every artist for their work. 

Because for Berry, expanding the work of artists and participating in public art is about “actual economic development in the city,” says Berry. Hiring local DJs and performers like the Bootstrap Boys Vivacious Ms. Audacious, Berry sought to create an event that celebrated artists of all stripes. “Arts is more than just murals…it's about collaboration,” she says. 

In addition to the street party, Creston.After Dark showcased eight outdoor murals all created by artists either living or working in Creston. One such piece, on the wall of Lions and Rabbits, was crafted by Berry herself, and features the quote by acclaimed dancer Isadora Duncan: “All that is necessary to make this world a better place to live in is to love.” Other Creston.After Dark murals include “Graydon’s Crossing Mural” by Kyle DeGroff and “Central District Cyclery Mural” by Elliot Chaltry.

But Berry isn’t the only one dotting the Creston neighborhood with bright, inviting murals. In 2018, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts got into the action as well, commissioning a neighborhood mural as part of their “UICA Outside” project that showcased five public art projects in three different GR neighborhoods. Three of these projects were large murals created in Creston: “Mycorrhizal Network” by Colby Roanhorse, “Migration Is Beautiful” by Nick Nortier, and “Fiber” by the group Evas’ve.

The Fiber team, from left to right, Rebecca Rapin, Chris Fox, Jasmyne Schierbaum, Kacie Forbes, Elyse Flynn, Colette Holston, and Ty Davis.Heading up the “Fiber" mural as part of Evas’ve was Not Design collaborator and AIGA West Michigan President Elyse Flynn. Collaborating with students and professionals in the development of “Fiber,” a piece that explored the concept of interlocking elements — in textiles, furniture, and communities — Flynn guided the group of artists in the mural’s inception and creation. “It was a really fun project because they really took a lot of the lead of doing a lot of the research,” she says. The piece also works thematically with its location on the side of Stonesthrow home furnishings and design, a nod to the artwork's five-year home and its role in the history of the Furniture City. 

Fiber at 2458 Plainfield.
Katherine E. Williams, head of education and community programs at the UICA, says calls the UICA Outside Program “a series of mural projects that aimed at expanding UICA’s impact city-wide and connecting visitors to the vibrant neighborhoods that surround downtown Grand Rapids,” and adds that "These projects have allowed us to engage with large audiences and form a lasting impact with accessible public art throughout the community.”

With Not Design located right in Creston, Flynn feels the evolution of the area as an artsy neighborhood. “[It’s amazing] just how much is going on that feels very art-focused,” she says. While each individual mural project has been specialized and intentional, the sheer number of murals in the neighborhood reflects an organic, almost accidental trend. “The mural thing is very funny,” adds Flynn. “Now [Creston] has become kind of a destination area.”

Recently, Flynn has chatted with Stonesthrow owner Karen Kloostra, who is ecstatic about the mural’s reception in the community — not to mention the extra attention it garners their business. “It’s been really really cool to see people come out of their way to see something, and then they get to be here at the same time,” says Flynn.

Afro Caribbean Artist Erick Picardo, another Creston local, agrees. “Art is happening here!” he says, adding, “There is a huge and wonderful art community here and a lot of talented people.”

Erick PicardoHaving purchased a house in the neighborhood 2004, Picardo has long been entrenched in the Creston arts community. In addition to participating in ArtPrize for the past seven years, Picardo has also competed in Creston’s Art Battle for the past eight. "I love the music, and the art scene at Creston is contagious,” he says. "All the new business bringing new energy to the area that makes everyone welcome."

Commissioned by Neighborhood Development and Coleman Baar to craft a mural on the real estate firm’s property at 2458 Plainfield in summer 2018, Picardo put to use years of experience working on large-scale paintings. “I have been lucky enough to have 12 pieces of indoor and outdoor murals done all over the city of Grand Rapids,” he says. "Four years ago, I decide to take a challenge to work on large scale of big empty walls.”

The Creston mural, showcasing a painted hand in the American Sign Language sign of “I Love You,” is a peaceful, inviting image. “In this project, we want to promote positive message that might help to create innovative actions in our community,” says Picardo. It was a priority to overcome a negative issue, so the idea was to promote “Love” and “Peace” through a joyful piece of mural."

Each of these pieces, whether entries in art competition, a community engagement event, or simply a straightforward commission, have made an indelible impression on both the local arts community and any visitor or passerby that witnesses each public artwork. And these artists are just getting started.

Berry is already working on additional public art projects, with a Michigan Street After Dark party already in the works, and two more neighborhoods currently in development. With projects like these and the vast variety of art events held at Lions and Rabbits, Berry is working toward and witnessing the shift toward art accessibility. “People might not have money to buy art, but they are starting to appreciate it,” she says.

After another successful mural project, 100 years, 100 lines at the UICA, Flynn hopes to do more large-scale projects in the future, including a possible mural workshop during AIGA’s next Design Week. “[We are becoming] a city that appreciates art and appreciates creativity and wants to celebrate that. I hope that it obviously continues in that direction,” says Flynn. “I think there’s still a lot we can do to better that.”

Picardo also continues to dot the city with his murals, currently working on “Celebrating Diversity” under DGRI’s “Activate the Place” grant. He is also working with National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read, a program that allows him to work with over 200 elementary and middle students in the creation of an indoor mural.

“I am] blessed to be part of the art community that promote an overall better community through arts,” says Picardo. “It took a decade for me to understand how important is to know as artist who I am and the value of what we have to offer to society.”

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio, unless otherwise stated. 

If you're looking for an excellent guide to GR's murals, check out this handy guide at GRKids.com
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