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Why the Community Mural Matters

by on September 29, 2010 12:43 PM

Elody Gyekis had heard the question before.

“How can a mural truly impact a community?”

I was interviewing Gyekis, artistic director of the Community Arts Collective, about the “Dreams Take Flight” mural. Since July, the non-profit organization has been working on the collaborative art project, which will be installed on the wall of McLanahan's Downtown Market at the corner of Allen Street and Calder Way.

I’m all for the mural. It will transform an otherwise ugly wall, one that I happen to walk by at least once a week, into a vibrant public canvas.

But my question targeted the broader, less obvious payoff: What’s the point?

Gyekis had a three-part answer. When it comes to murals, Gyekis happens to be an expert. She recently graduated from Penn State with a bachelor of fine arts in painting and ceramics. One of her minors was civic and community engagement. And prior to Dreams Take Flight, she contributed to six different murals, including a small mural in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

“I wrote my thesis on this subject,” she says with a laugh. Her Cliff Notes version:

1.) The collective process, Gyekis says, invokes pride—in the painters and in their hometown. This point is especially true for the project’s younger participants, some of them at-risk youth, who may not always feel a connection to their community.

About 600 people have participated in the mural, which comprises more than 100 five-by-five-foot panels. The process started with a brainstorming session and a central question: What’s unique about State College? People spoke about the town’s ebb and flow of students and locals, and of the energy that comes from a place that revolves around education. The central theme that ultimately guided the mural: “This is a place where dreams take flight,” Gyekis recalls.

Like any other town, State College gives its residents reasons to gripe. But the mural gives us an opportunity to revel in the positives.  The fact that we even have the money to spend on the arts is something to be celebrated: The project boasts a $20,000 budget. That total includes $3,000 from the borough, money left over from its Centennial Fund; a grant from the Centre County Community Foundation; individual donations; and business sponsorships. The group also benefited from many in-kind donations, including its rent-free studio space downtown and a steep discount from Sherwin-Williams on some anti-graffiti coating that will protect the mural.

2.) The mural pulls people out of the routines that too often segregate them from their younger or older neighbors, allowing them to cross boundaries. “It’s what sociologists call building social capital,” Gyekis says, “which just means networking.”

From July through September, the group held three open community painting sessions a week. Nine-year-old elementary schoolers stood next to elderly people; college kids worked side-by-side with full-time residents. Many remarked that the project gave them a feeling of “Zen.”

3.) The wall’s ultimate transformation will impress, engage and inspire.

The group is still raising funds, and the installation hasn’t even begun, but they hope to be finished by mid-November.

By that time, we’ll be hurrying from one indoor space to another, wrapped up in sweaters, scarves—and our own little bubbles. Gyekis hopes that passing by that wall will remind us that we’re also connected.

Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at or contact her at [email protected]
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