More Than a Mural

August 05, 2021

A few hours each evening in July, community volunteers and Grinnell College students joined together in downtown Grinnell to paint a mural on the south side of the McNally’s Food Store building. The mural was designed by Grinnell College student Guhn “Tommy” Lee ’22, a studio art major from Seoul, South Korea, and a summer intern for the Grinnell Area Arts Council. Colorful caricatures show what people eat, see, and experience when living or visiting Grinnell. The mural gives new life to a public space and shares a heartfelt message for everyone to see. It also tells a story of what a welcoming community looks like.

student painting heart on mural

The first few evenings of the project consisted of Lee drawing the caricatures and then participants priming the images in white onto the red brick wall. On day 4, Lee applied the very first stroke of color, a mustard yellow, painted right in the middle of the mural. As he began painting, another Grinnell College rising senior joined him with a paintbrush in hand. The student asked Lee where he got the idea for the mural.

student painting mural

Lee shared that his vision for the design emerged from many conversations, including some with Karen Edwards, dean and director of international student affairs, and Emily Perry, assistant director of international student programs in the Office of International Student Affairs. The goal was to offer opportunities for creativity and community, to increase visual sources of joy, and to underscore the message that everyone from across the world is welcome here. Together, they were painting right where the words YOU ARE WELCOME HERE would be when the mural was finished.

“We also wanted to provide international students and others who may not have been able to go back to their homes for a long time due to the pandemic a chance to come together, have fun, and create something cool for our local community,” Lee said.

That same evening that 2 individuals who had never met were painting a faint blue color where the little pond on the mural would be. They organically struck up a conversation and soon realized that they were both new to Grinnell from larger cities and shared in the fondness of the College and town of Grinnell. They both described feeling welcomed as new residents, marveled at the amount of green space around, and remarked on the wonderful dining options.

“Each evening I observed students meeting new people living in Grinnell, working at the College, or even connecting with other Grinnell College students they had never met. For me, it was a wonderful opportunity to spend more time with students, meet new community members — some of whom have been hosts from our Friends of International Students program,” Perry said.

Monica St. Angelo, operations manager for the Grinnell Area Arts Council, said, “This was a wonderful opportunity to unite Grinnell College students and community members to create a piece of public art together that can be enjoyed by everyone in the Grinnell community. There are no barriers to enjoying a mural; it’s out in the open and fun to see as you ride or walk past, or you can get up close and take selfies with it!”

Each evening brought new people together, sparked new conversations, connections, and friendships. “When I walk by the mural, it symbolizes a positive connection between the community and our students. It served as an opportunity for students to leave a unique mark on the place they may call home for 4 years, and the mural will hopefully continue to serve as a space incoming students can visit and engage with when they come to Grinnell,” added Perry.

volunteers painting mural in Grinnell
Students and community volunteers help paint a community mural in downtown Grinnell.

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