As long as I can remember, the Greater Madison area has been going through a perpetual identity crisis. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The area means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and as many of us strive to adapt to social evolutions in concept, perception, and demonstration, what we showcase as our identity shifts under the magnifying glass. Art, from fine to culinary, has worked to capture these moments, allowing us to close our eyes and hold them before they hollow.
But for the last six years, local nonprofit Dane Arts Mural Arts (DAMA) has been using art to harness community identity in colossal fashion. “We are a community mural painting program,” says aptly named Emida Roller, executive director and lead artist. “That means we, as mural artists, we just don’t go to a wall, paint the wall, and go home. We use the communities’ ideas to design the murals. We go to that community and ask them what they want. Usually, though, they do come to us when they want a mural, and then we ask, ‘What do you want? What’s the reason? Give us some ideas.’ Then we’ll come up with a few designs. They will vote and decide what they want for the mural—how that mural should speak to the public or people around them about who this community is or who this school is or who this business is.”
Most people view facets of Greater Madison from the outside in, and even those in Greater Madison form strongly held associations with the neighbors they’ve never visited. Because of this, struggling communities have a harder time shining through prejudices. What DAMA has allowed these communities to do is take ownership of their identity.
Wrapped around the corner of the Dane County Job Center is a 20-foot king protea flower. “It’s really cool the county let us do that on the building. It says something about the north side. The mural shows an incredible flower breaking through rubble and a lot of rocks and debris, and it’s blooming. There’re good things coming out of the north side, good things happening. It’s not always the negative.” On the bits of rubble are hardships: depression, forgotten, debt, ignorance. In the sky and on the flower: compassion, breathe, dream, grow.
Not every mural DAMA coordinates is visible to the general public. Approximately a third are in public schools. Often the messages are about school spirit and identity, and sometimes they tackle bigger issues, like when Mount Horeb High School did a mural on mental health. Such murals can fundamentally change the way students and teachers interact with one another, fostering something that makes uncomfortable topics surrounding emotions more commonplace.
Though murals can be done in different mediums, for example DAMA had once used mosaic tiles, DAMA tends to use polytab cloth. “We paint on that because it is really portable. It allows us to take the mural to the students and community members, and they will come up at the same time and just put on what’s marked up with color,” says Emida. “And we take it to them. We take it to the community center. We take it to the schools. We work with alternative programs at the high school and some elementary schools, and we’ll paint with them. After we’ve painted with them and filled in all the spots and places on the mural, we bring it back to the shop and we’ll finesse it, make it look professional, make it look finished. Make it look like one person painted it rather than 250 kids. After that’s done, we take it and we go install it at the wall.”
One of Emida’s favorite installations is at the Hawthorne Tunnel. “It’s a long tunnel that goes under East Wash, and that’s the path the kids walk when they go to school. They don’t cross the busy East Wash, they have to go underneath. And it was really a scary place. It was dark, dirty, stinky, and the kids would not walk through it to get to school. Some of them would rather stay home. So we tried to find a way to use art to solve the problem. The kids helped us design the murals. When you walk through, you see their artwork. We blew up their design; we didn’t recreate it or anything—we used exactly what they designed. The kids all worked together to cover about 240 feet of tunnel space with beautiful artwork, and the kids are so excited to go through this tunnel. To walk to school, ride their bikes, run through the tunnel, it’s a much happier place to go through.”
Though large installations are still DAMA’s focus, recent events involving a pandemic have provided opportunity for adaptation. One of the largest additions is DAMA’s “mini-murals. They’re 8 feet by 15 feet. To us, that’s mini.” To get people engaged in the process, DAMA would pose a question on social media for people to respond to. One mural asked people to complete the statement “Slow down and…” Emida says, “We had about 100 comments saying: slow down and smell the flowers. Slow down and make art. Slow down and enjoy your family.”
The mini-murals are available for purchase via donation. For $5,000, DAMA will install the mural on an interior or exterior wall wherever the donor chooses.
My favorite ongoing installation involves storm-drain mini-murals that “educate people about where the rainwater goes when it goes through the drain, and why you should keep it clean. It’s going to the rivers and streams around us. The murals are pretty, and they’re sending a message.”
DAMA is doing what a lot of artists struggle to do, getting art out on the streets for people to experience. Instead of the occasional thought given to monumental and exemplary works of art, audiences are forced to consider these murals as they encounter them in day-to-day scenarios. The layers of meaning begging to be dissected. “It’s a mural,” says Emida. “But the story behind it makes it even more special.”
To support or learn more about DAMA, visit daneartsmuralarts.org .
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Dane County.