Community Art Mural: A Deeper Look

The turn of a new year.  There are few better opportunities to both reflect and to look forward.  2022 was the year I got married (“finally!” some would say) to the beautiful, intelligent, and caring Jessica de la Rosa.  It was a year of new adventures, a personal injury which caused me to slow down, and the year my parents retired.  Celebrating their decades of accomplishments and sacrifices was more emotional than I imagined.  Proud, humbled, and a little sad at the same time, this incited some introspective curiosities about my own vocation.

Originally starting my professional career as a small business owner in a struggling downtown, I felt compelled to pour myself into being part of the city’s revival.  Little did I know that this would become my life’s work.  Over 20 years later, it seems this is true.

What began as volunteer passion projects while I was managing other businesses led me to a full-time position as the head of the downtown business association.  Eventually this role morphed into a municipal government appointment where I oversee the city’s placemaking and cultural affairs strategies and investments.  It’s an honor to work alongside hundreds of colleagues who are committed to this inclusive, influential, and innovative work.  From economic development and social equity to historic preservation and ecological stewardship, the impacts we’re able to collectively deliver are meaningful.  I’m grateful for those who support this work in so many ways.  I look forward to continuing to earn your patronage, your organizational collaborations, your philanthropic gifts, and your volunteer time.  I’m thankful for the opportunity to continue to improve and expand these impacts.

Occasionally, even while current plans are unfolding, it’s worthwhile to take stock of all the people, programs, and projects that have made the years so rewarding.  I love sharing intimate moments with individuals who encounter and appreciate our work.  I equally embrace the challenges these same folks sometimes offer.  This type of job is a lifestyle of sorts, full of highs and lows, the intense and the mundane.  Planning and visioning are the yin to the yang of resourcing and executing.  Internationally acclaimed public art installations, new and restored buildings, major park redevelopments, plazas, trails and streetscaping projects are particularly fulfilling.  I like the challenges associated with marketing initiatives, parking management, business development programs, and endless events – large and small.  Legislative changes, strategic plans, fundraising campaigns, community engagement, and partnership formations make these things all possible.  The efforts earn media accolades, critiques, and recognitions… including the top award for the parks industry this past year.  I enjoy this work just about as much as I enjoy helping others vision, build capacity, and execute.  Whether it’s leading a book club for local businesses, presenting at major conferences or consulting with other cities, it’s a true honor to share the story of South Bend’s latest chapter.

Rounding out this reflective journey, one of my favorite projects to date remains a comparatively minor one from about eight years ago.  Maybe because there were finite resources available to complete this plan and because it took a little grit.  Or maybe because of its innate ability to be wildly accessible and Instagrammable.  I think mostly, however, it’s because this work – just about as much as any other project or program I’ve coordinated – embodies one of the greatest economic development principles ever muttered.  “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  I think the legendary urbanist, Jane Jacobs, would be proud of the way we cleaned up a dark and dangerous alley… quite literally with “everybody” involved.

Below is a repost of the blog I wrote when we originally completed the project:

Community Art Mural – A Deeper Look

Perhaps you’ve seen the large, colorful mural installed at the corner of Colfax Avenue and Woodward Court in downtown South Bend, across from LaSalle Grill.  Perhaps you haven’t yet noticed it.  Either way, I’m realizing that many people don’t quite know the story of how that mural came to be.  The concept was to use an artistic medium to clean up a neglected area of downtown – a place that had become a frequent location of illicit and illegal activity.  The piece, with its nod to the highly recognizable “Keepers of the Fire” sculpture, embodies something much deeper than an initial glance might reveal.

Fully appreciating the mural means understanding how it was originally created…and then recreated.  Check out this brief video which captures the entire process:

To recap what you just watched, local artist, Ben Roseland, was commissioned to create a piece of art unique to South Bend.  He incorporated his signature abstract style with a rendering of Mark di Suvero’s iconic, orange sculpture.  The final piece was something quite creative and enjoyable…but we quickly sliced it up into 704 tiny one inch pieces.  We then charged people with the task of selecting one of the small pieces and painting what they saw on to larger one foot square ceramic tile.  Sal Moya of The Frame Factory generously provided the paint for hundreds of people to come and create their own square ceramic masterpieces.

The goal was to then take all the large tiles and put them back together like a puzzle.  Luckily, we had enough foresight to label the back of each piece so we generally knew how to reassemble everything.  Nonetheless, it still took about eight hours for ten people to “solve” the 44’ x 16’ puzzle as captured in Peter Ringenberg’s time lapse video.  The original plan was to take final product and mortar it together onto an outside wall as the final mural.  The logistics of installing these tiles became daunting, so we called our friends at Valley Screen Process.  Utilizing a state of the art UV printer, they were able to accept a hi-res photo of our final mural and print it onto a textured surface wall film produced by 3M.  Valley Screen staff then carefully installed this giant print onto the brick wall where it is currently on display for all to enjoy.

When I first construed the idea of this community mural creation technique, my only concern was how the final product would look.  In relaying the vision to Ben, he shared the sentiment.  After all, there were going to be several hundred people – with vastly varying skills sets (some of them who can barely draw a stick figure…like me) – each working independently on something that would ultimately be put back together.  The result doesn’t quite look like the original.  The lines are a little crooked, the colors don’t all quite match up and if you look close enough, you’ll even find at least one tile that was accidentally installed sideways.

Nonetheless, I like the final product even better than the original.  Sorry, Ben…no offense!  Specifically, it’s inspiring to think of the final mural being the result of a collective effort.  704 different people from our community worked on it.  While I can’t say that I interacted with everyone who painted a tile, I did meet many of them.  It’s quite realistic that we have nearly every demographic from our city represented in these tiles – inclusive of age, race, religion, sexual orientation, political belief, income level, education status and beyond.  Each one of them took a piece of the painting and used it as a template for their own creation.  Amazingly enough, even with all the variables at play, when the hundreds of creations were combined back together, they formed a striking image that remarkably resembled the original.  While it isn’t a mirror image, it’s our custom community creation.  Some would say it’s not perfect, but then again, neither are the people who created it and neither are we as a community.  The inspiring part here is that we can take all our unique backgrounds, beliefs and imperfections and work together to create something that comes together in great harmony.  That’s the way to create a city.

Aaron Perri works to provide quality places and experiences in the City of South Bend as the Executive Director of South Bend Venues Parks & Arts. He’s currently overseeing $80 Million worth of investments as part of the largest place-based economic development initiative in the city’s history.  A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Aaron earned his undergraduate degree in Arts & Letters as well as a Master’s of Business Administration. Aaron is a published author, consultant, and a well-traveled speaker with extensive experience in the business development, event planning, entertainment, audio/visual, and food service industries. Prior to working for the City of South Bend, Aaron was the Executive Director of Downtown South Bend, Inc. where he focused on business growth and quality of place.  Perri is active in many local boards and has received state and nation-wide recognition for his community development efforts.  In 2022, Perri’s department was recognized as the top Parks department in the country via the National Gold Medal Award – the highest recognition of excellence in the field.