Murals bring color and vibrant energy to bleak building exteriors, but the change to the physical walls runs deeper than the brushstrokes. The true power of a mural is in the changes and cultural connections these projects inspire within communities.
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“Murals create spaces and opportunities of for us to gather together and find the ways we are connected to each other—the ways that we are more alike than different—and that’s powerful,” muralist Greta McLain says. “In today’s world, instead of going against each other and falling into fear, how do we create alternative pathways to doing something good? What is making the city spectacular? Murals are the forum for the community’s voice—billboards for people’s stories. They are a great way to celebrate the people, acknowledge the challenges, and illuminate the history that already exists—but may not be immediately visible—in the communities surrounding the mural.”
Transforming dull and drab brick streetscapes, elementary school cafeterias, and forgettable trash cans into spirited scenes of vitality, Greta McLain has created and collaborated on more than 40 murals and tile mosaics throughout her career, from Minneapolis to Memphis to Mexico. “It all started in fourth grade,” the 33-year-old Minneapolitan reflects. Attending Ramsey International Fine Arts Center, herself and a team of students designed and produced a hallway mural leading to the string instruments. “I was instantly hooked. I was like, ‘Yes. This is my thing. This is what I am supposed to do.’”
She has since gathered a diverse toolbox of new and traditional mural techniques by attending University of California–Davis, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City in 2004, and graduating with an interdisciplinary masters degree in 2012 from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 2016, Greta established GoodSpace Murals, a collaborative project with community organizer Candida Gonzalez. Together, and joined by a host of assistant artists, they work to empower communities and local artists through the creation of large, people-powered mosaics and murals.
Photos by Tj Turner
“We are not ignoring the very real challenges or problems at hand,” she says, acknowledging her murals are created in places experiencing racial isolation, economic segregation, or cultural disparity. “But this work gives us a forum to collectively dream and work together to vision where we want to go, our positive seed for our neighborhoods, schools, youth, city.”
The mural photographed for this issue of The Growler is part of the Midway Murals Project, in which four local artists transformed a half-mile stretch of Snelling Avenue during the summer of 2015. Her mural “Braided,” at 512 Snelling Avenue, is loud and proud with shades of electrifying emerald and striking scarlet and glinting tile mosaics. Freweini Sium—the owner of the building and adjacent Sunshine Beauty Salon—is depicted with a beaming smile as her flowing, curly hair is braided into a color-punched, geometric weave of traditional patterns from the different cultures and immigrants who have planted their feet in the area: Scandinavian, Mexican, Hmong, Ojibwe, and African.
“The mural design focuses on the braid as a universal symbol of women’s culture—it crosses all these different cultural lines,” Greta says. “Even though this mural depicts Freweini, it could be anyone, or whoever wants to relate to it. This mural attempts to unify the immigrant experience—we all have immigrant stories. Your immigrant story is my immigrant story.”
“Your immigrant story is my immigrant story.”
– Greta McLain
And whenever possible, Greta’s works of art are shaped by the community members where the public piece will take root to further the act of inclusion. “We all hold these important stories and moments,” Greta says. “This is our moment to claim that visual space and use the visual language to let the world know who is really here and how big and bold and beautiful we are.”