Paint-splashed walls of four downtown buildings are bringing the first elements of the Belleville Mural Project closer to fruition.
Over the next few weeks, artists from around the country will arrive in Belleville and complete large and colorful paintings around the community.
“It’s taking Belleville from a bedroom community, sleepy suburb and making it its own destination,” said Emily Smith, a Belleville Mural Project committee member.
The paintings are a natural step for an already artistic community that hosts Art on the Square, said Kathy Mordini, one of the lead organizers of the project.
“This is new territory for Belleville. I know we’re big in the arts, but to have a big public display is something new,” she said. “This is the step we’re taking to become the hub of the arts in southern Illinois.”
With these murals, Belleville joins East St. Louis and a growing list of towns and cities across the U.S. adding color to their public spaces. The trend started to gain traction when communities saw murals successful unify a community and draw tourism, said Scott Pondrom, a St. Louis-based artist.
“There are small and mid-sized cities, like Belleville, that have recognized the power of murals,” he said.
Scott Pondrom painted one portion of his mural on Sept. 28 during the project’s kick-off weekend. The St. Louis-based artist has completed murals in the Grove neighborhood, Downtown St. Louis and on Cherokee Street.
Many members of the Mural Project committee saw well-established and emerging mural communities in Miami and Austin, and wanted to bring a similar movement to Belleville.
“I have seen murals go up in bigger cities and seen such a great following,” said Sarah Plewniak, a project committee member. “There’s no reason why Belleville shouldn’t have that.”
Defining the space
An art project like this is different from other artistic projects because the murals are permanently fixed in public space. Once completed, the paintings remain on the walls for years and take on a life of their own, said Minneapolis-based illustrator Allegra Lockstadt, one of the artists completing a mural.
“This sort of work has an ability to literally be within a community,” she said. “It has that ability to enter people’s lives and be more integrated with an everyday experience.”
To Pondrom, this project offers Belleville a chance to outwardly brand its downtown district. He’s painting one of the four downtown Belleville murals.
“It’s not defined by anything in particular now,” he said. “Murals are a way to create a space for community that didn’t exist before.”
He compares the mostly blank or monotone walls in Belleville’s downtown to blank walls in a gallery space. Pondrom explained a gallery is more inviting and draws more people in when it’s full of art.
“Mural projects like this, where there’s multiple murals in one location, does the same thing on a grander scale,” Pondrom said.
The project committee sought mural designs that were colorful, bright and reflected the way they see Belleville’s community. Plewniak grew up in the city and knows firsthand how outsiders viewed the city or its problems in the past.
“Sometimes Belleville tends to get a bad rap, but I don’t see it that way at all,” she said. “This town is full of love and hope.”
The murals are one opportunity to openly share and display those values to newcomers or passersby, Plewniak said.
The push for this project comes in tandem with a resurgence in the city’s downtown core. A streetscape project on Main Street completed in 2008 provided momentum, Plewniak said.
“The downtown has changed a lot, and for the better,” she said. “It has really come alive.”
The change has attracted a new crop of younger families to Belleville, which make up most of the project committee, Mordini said. She credits their fresh enthusiasm in the community with getting the project off the ground.
Smith is a newer Belleville resident on the project committee, having moved to the city two years ago. This project is an opportunity for her to leave a mark in a neighborhood she’s quickly come to love.
“This is just adding to what’s already downtown, creating an extra layer,” she said.
The new members of Belleville’s social fabric also bring fresh ideas to a town that’s reinvented itself a few times in its two-century history.
“We’re really one of the first generations to understand social media and the way your image and brand makes a name for yourself,” Smith said.
More mural prospects
Mordini said some Belleville residents were skeptical and curious when planning for the project started in January, but the community seems to be embracing the project now that artists are putting up the first bits of color.
“They have to see it to believe, grasp and understand it,” she said.
Tangible results on a few buildings have brought out building owners inquiring about a project for their walls.
“They’re coming out of the woodwork,” Mordini said.
These first murals, which will be completed by Oct. 11, are just the beginning of a greater push for public art in the community, Plewniak said. For now, the project will focus on murals in the city’s downtown before branching out.
Two of their next mural locations, on South High Street and West Main Street, cleared the city’s zoning board of appeals on Sept. 26. Next, they’ll need approval from the City Council.
Mordini hopes to keep the project’s momentum going with 10 total murals completed by next fall, she said. In the long term, Mordini said she wants to see a mural walk event or another kind of regular activity focused around the murals.
“We’re a town of festivals,” she said. “We just need a reason to throw a party.”
This story was originally published by St. Louis Public Radio and is republished here with their permission. Eric Schmid covers the metro-east for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid