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Colorful array of murals bring beauty to Michigan’s downtowns

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Clay McAndrews traveled across the United States in search of adventure with Leslie Youngdahl.

Eating good local food, walking the downtowns and gaining a greater understanding of our world and how different communities celebrate unique cultural differences while fulfilling their souls and their stomachs were necessities on each trip.

But an absolute must was finding a mural to see how art defined each location. And, of course, take a photo together in front of it.

“Call us generic millennials, but we had a great time doing it,” McAndrews laughed.

When he set his camera up in front of a mural with the word “love” in big, bold letters, Youngdahl thought nothing was amiss. Just another mural, this time in Boston.

That’s when McAndrew’s dropped to one knee and asked for her hand in marriage. One of life’s sweetest moments, captured naturally and in front of a mural.

“In that moment, I was as nervous as any person would be,” McAndrews said. “I pretended I was snapping the shutter on my phone and pulled (the ring) out of my back pocket and proposed.”

She said yes.

Mural proposal

Clay McAndrews proposes to Leslie Youngdahl in front of a mural in Boston, Mass. (Photo provided by Clay McAndrews)Clay McAndrews

Returning from the trip, he drummed up the idea to bring murals to Jackson for that very same purpose.

“How cool would it be to paint a mural in Jackson so that people would come to Jackson and create some memories?” McAndrews said.

From Grand Rapids to Flint, Ann Arbor and Detroit, murals have been sprouting up in downtowns across Michigan, notably on the blank sides of buildings but also on parking garages and other untouched surfaces.

‘Bright Walls’ brings 41 murals to Jackson

McAndrews’ idea sparked the creation of Bright Walls, an initiative started in 2018 that has brought 41 murals to Jackson’s downtown area, with that number expected to climb above 60 by year’s end.

RELATED: Bright Walls is back for one last bash in downtown Jackson

“It has been a huge benefit for the community,” McAndrews said. “People are traveling to Jackson who have never been to Jackson before simply for the murals.”

While those visitors are in town, they are checking out local businesses, eating at local restaurants and spending money in the city, McAndrews said.

“The impact that it has had in our community is very widespread and has so many different aspects,” he said. “It’s impact that we are going to see for many, many years because these murals are not going away.”

A ‘stunning’ mural in Muskegon

Public art has always had a place in Michigan’s history, and Muskegon showcases that while still bringing new artists opportunities to represent the West Michigan city.

Its earliest pieces date back to the early 1900s with bronze statues of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley by artist Charles Niehaus in Hackley Park, among the nearly 50 pieces of public art in the community.

Mural changed on Mercy Health Arena

A mural titled “What Defines Muskegon” was painted by Detroit artist Dr. Hubert Massey to show Muskegon’s history on the Mercy Health Arena in Muskegon on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Daniel Shular | MLive.com)Daniel Shular | MLive.com

The most recent addition is a 65-foot by 12-foot mural along the Walker Arena by Detroit artist Huberty Massey that highlights Muskegon’s history in a timeline fashion.

“I am immensely proud of it. It’s truly stunning,” said Judith Hayner, project director for the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative. “Feeling the impact of public art, I think it’s subtle. It’s not something people talk about all the time, but they’re living with art. They’re living with art day to day. … It’s part of your living room. It’s part of where you live.

“Whether it’s conscious or not, creativity matters, beauty matters. Even if it’s only for a few seconds, coming across something in the wild as you drive or walk. Take a moment, take a deep breath. Take it in. There are so many challenges, and so much ugliness in the world. We have to take a moment to take in the creativity and beauty the world has to offer. And public art does that. It inspires.”

‘Legends of my City’ in Flint

Murals and public art have taken on a new life, particularly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As galleries and art museums were closed indefinitely as case numbers surged, foot traffic around parks and downtowns grew — and the opportunities to see fresh public art was a large part of the draw.

“It’s an attraction. Come, see the city, see the murals and explore. It’s leading people to different parts of neighborhoods they haven’t been in before,” said Charles Boike, a 38-year-old trial attorney and mural artist.

Boike is the mind and eye behind a number of popular murals in Flint that depict some of its hometown heroes in a “Legends of My City” series, including Michigan State basketball national champions Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, as well as world boxing champions Claressa Shields and Anthony Dirrell.

Boike also depicted Frida Kahlo in a larger-than-life, full-scale depiction near the LatinX Technology and Community Center on the city’s east side.

Frida Kahlo mural

Sun shines upon the mural of Friday Kahlo by Charles Boike on Thursday, April 14, 2022 on Flint’s east side.(Jake May | MLive.com)

He started his hand in street art as a graffiti artists in his teens in the 1990s. Boike said in the 1970s and ‘80s, graffiti was simply tagging an artist’s moniker.

Slowly over the next 30 years thereafter, graffiti left the culture of inner-city subways and rails and found its way into greater production pieces with displays on permissible walls.

By the 2010s, graffiti artists were more widely accepted into the overall art world, Boike said, so much so that art students began bringing their school-educated eyes to the streets and vice versa.

In the last seven years, there has been an explosion of new wave mural art around the country, and that has been felt in communities of all sizes in Michigan.

When it comes to his hometown of Flint, Boike takes his mission very personally.

The uptick of blight in the city over the last 30 years since General Motors’ large-scale departure depressed the area.

It can statistically harm your health, both physical and mental, he said.

“We’ve gone through economic depressions or recessions, both in the city and throughout the state of Michigan,” Boike said. “By beautifying neighborhoods, you aren’t only giving people a sense of pride, but giving them happiness. By painting these murals, we’re rebuilding our community and giving people their own sense of ownership and it matters for every city’s greater economic development.

“It’s giving back to that holistic life, where if you’re out in the community, you’re not seeing gray, but beautiful colors. Visual arts have colors and frequency. You’re touching on a sense.”

Changing perception

Murals are changing the perception many have of cities like Flint, said Joe Schipani, executive director of the Flint Public Art Project.

“Before murals, Flint had the water crisis. And everybody talked about the water crisis. And then, everybody talked about the documentary ‘Flint Town.’ These became Flint’s identity,” he said. “Bringing in all of these artists and painting the town, filling it with all of these murals, was in response to that in an effort to change our narrative. We needed to stop talking about the negatives in Flint and start talking about the beauty of our city.”

RELATED: This Michigan teenager aims to change Flint’s narrative, shine light on beauty of his hometown

Schipani made it his mission to beautify the city through grant-funded artwork. So much so that 215 murals have been painted throughout Flint’s landscape.

Murals bring vibrant, new life to Michigan downtowns

Director of the Flint Public Art Project (FPAP) Joe Schipani smiles talking about the project. The in-progress murals were documented on Wednesday Aug. 28, 2019 at 409 Garland St in downtown Flint. The project between Flint and New Orleans is in phase 1 and called FLINT X NOLA. (Sara Faraj | MLive.com)Kaiti Sullivan

It has helped turn blighted areas with dilapidated, abandoned buildings into brighter, colorful spots in neighborhoods, he said.

“Flint has a lot of abandoned buildings. It would be great to get them all torn down, but with our city as financially-strapped as we are, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. So then, why do we as residents have to stare at that ugly building? Why can’t we instead stare at something beautiful?” he said.

Read more on MLive:

New Flint mural pays homage to civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis

New Bright Walls mural lighting up downtown Jackson ahead of upcoming festival

Murals aim to stimulate growth, investment in Grand Rapids neighborhood

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