GoodSpace Murals Installed New Mural in Downtown Parkersburg
This month, the corner of 8th and Market Streets in Downtown Parkersburg came to life with the installation of a vibrant new mural. Designed by Greta McLain of GoodSpace Murals in collaboration with the Parkersburg community, the colorful collage includes images of local landmarks and people inspired by local residents. Stretching out alongside the Parkersburg Art Center, the mural is over 50 feet wide and 30 feet tall – but even more impressive than its size is the fact that more than 300 members of the community participated in its evolution.
“The mural represents the people of our community and what we aspire to be,” said Jessie Siefert, managing and education director at the Parkersburg Art Center, who first had the dream to bring GoodSpace Murals to Parkersburg. “There are references to our arts district, river history and historical buildings, but also elements that reflect our culture like the quilts, heritage textiles, and rainbow flag. The colors are warm and embracing – just as this community can be.”
Getting to know Parkersburg
This community-wide arts effort kicked off this summer with a brainstorming and listening lunch hosted by the Arts Collaborative of the MOV, housed under WVU Parkersburg. McLain, muralist, owner and artistic director of GoodSpace Murals, asked the community to respond to a series of questions reflecting on what they love most about their city and their hopes and dreams for Parkersburg’s future. McLain said this dialogue was key and part of GoodSpace Mural’s deep community engagement process.
“We don’t come in with any preconceived ideas, or we try not to, before doing a project,” said McLain. In addition to the community event, McLain and her team had preliminary conversations with a variety of local stakeholders, organized by Senta Goudy, Dean for Civic Engagement and Innovation at WVU Parkersburg, and Siefert, asking the same questions: what do you love about Parkersburg, what are your hopes and dreams for Parkersburg, and what would you like to change about Parkersburg?
We wanted this to be about the arts and our history but we did not want the mural just to represent one artist or even a committee, we wanted it to reflect the community as a whole and look towards a future that engages all.
“We had conversations with the Rotary Club, with the Zion Baptist Church, with local historians, with local youth and college students, and community members, and the board of the Art Center and the Actors Guild – so many people,” said McLain.
“Greta’s process involves interviewing people throughout the community and drilling down what is meaningful and important to them: what their aspirations are for the future and what elements of the past are worth celebrating and building upon,” said Siefert. “We wanted this to be about the arts and our history but we did not want the mural just to represent one artist or even a committee, we wanted it to reflect the community as a whole and look towards a future that engages all.”
Pen to Paper, Paint to Wall
From those conversations, McLain and her team developed their first mock up and presented it to a panel of engaged stakeholders. “I received a lot of feedback and there were a lot of things to edit – which is so amazing, because it really indicates that the folks hiring us to work with them were really engaged in this process and really wanted it to be right.”
After much back and forth, McLain and her team landed on their sketch and arrived back in Parkersburg mid-September with panels projected and pre-marked as a giant paint-by-number.
We also got to build these relationships and have this shared time that is now embedded in this mural.
“We use an indirect mural technique in which the whole mural is painted on synthetic canvas first and then installed like permanent wallpaper,” said McLain. “Our painting technique or style is kind of like an impressionistic, brushy, handmade kind of painted style that requires an underpainting. So we invited the community to attend these different community paint parties and open studio time to come and lay down that base for us.”
McLain said over 300 people came through to help paint over 2,200 square feet of mural in just one week and it was great to see the community take ownership of the project. “We also got to build these relationships and have this shared time that is now embedded in this mural.”
From there, McLain completed the overpainting in the studio set up in the annex building next to the Actors Guild. Once painting was complete, they installed each panel – all 88 of them – as if it was wallpaper and painted over it, so that no seams show through.
McLain said the paint-by-number technique hits a sweet spot in that the process encourages some level of coordination between participants, and can be somewhat of a challenge to complete, but also allows for those not interested in socializing to participate – and participants can’t mess it up, they can only help the process, which turns out to be really fun.
It felt like the community really embraced and gave magic to this community process and to what this mural could be that was so much more than a visual.
Participation from the community exceeded McLain’s expectations, which she attributes in part to the strong relationships and networks between arts organizations in Parkersburg. “In our very first paint party, we had over 150 people, which really spoke to the work of this core group of arts organizations, who have been doing such great work, that people heard about the paint party and without knowing what to expect, trusted the organizations to come out and get involved.”
Apart from painting, the team also experienced the support from the community throughout the project in other ways. From meals being provided, to folks checking in and asking if they needed anything and passersby cheering on from their cars, McLain said it was beautiful and not their experience in every place.
“It felt like the community really embraced and gave magic to this community process and to what this mural could be that was so much more than a visual.”
A portrait of Parkersburg
The mural itself is full of movement, music, life, and laughter. It is impossible not to smile while appreciating the art. While some of the imagery is easily recognizable, such as the red-bricked façade of the Blennerhassett Hotel, others are more abstract and representational. Color and pattern swirl around the smiling figures, friendly dogs, buildings, and butterflies.
It was amazing to hear about the strength of the community theater and the Art Center, and how Parkersburg is harnessing that in city planning.
Listening to the community’s reflections, McLain said it was apparent how strong the arts are in the vision for where Parkersburg is going. “It was amazing to hear about the strength of the community theater and the Art Center, and how Parkersburg is harnessing that in city planning and seeing the power of art to revitalize a town,” she said. “There is also this feeling of pride and history. I heard a lot about pieces of history that were unseen or under celebrated.”
One example is the Sumner School. Established in January of 1862, the Sumner High School in Parkersburg was the first free school south of the Mason-Dixon Line and was established two years before West Virginia had a public school system. Sumner School once served the entire Parkersburg black community, grades 1-12, before closing in 1955.
“I had conversations with community members that actually attended the school,” said McLain. “It’s an incredible piece of history and it’s located right in Parkersburg. Through research, we actually found some murals in Kansas that showed the school because it’s a celebrated piece of African American History. It’s right here in Parkersburg and not everyone knows about it.” The Sumner School can be seen in the mural embedded on the shirt of the central figure.
McLain also heard from members of the community a desire for there to be more cultural and ethnic diversity in the town, and that some communities of color did not always feel welcomed or considered. “I also heard from a lot of youth that they don’t see themselves spending their early 20s and 30s in a place like Parkersburg, like Parkersburg is a good place to raise a family, but there are a lot of people that feel like there’s nothing for them to do, there’s no hip youth theme here, or it could be bigger.”
It feels like Parkersburg is this beautiful jewel of potential. I love it.
She also said that everyone she spoke with commented on how drugs have ravaged West Virginia and the Mid-Ohio Valley region, and the desire to shift how the community is seen so that it can heal and move in a different direction.
“So I wanted to lift up this vision of where Parkersburg can go. And through the making of it, I met so many hip, fun people that are really embedded in creating that vision and it feels like Parkersburg is this beautiful jewel of potential. I love it.”
The mural both reflects the city as it is, and nods to its potential to become even more. This balance between reality and aspiration is one that McLain values very much.
“It’s really important that people see themselves in the wall and can identify and say, ‘oh, that person’s like me, or there’s a dog like mine’ – there has to be an invitation in.” If it’s too future forward, there’s not an invitation or an opportunity to claim that we are seeing this future together and that we are all invited together.”
McLain said that even though the mural reflects some of the community’s aspirations, there is nothing depicted in the mural that does not already exist in Parkersburg. Each element is rooted what residents today experience in the city.
“I met the owners of Los Agaves and got to experience how they see their rich and diverse Latin American community there because they’re so small that they all know each other, but they’re all from these different places,” said McLain, which inspired the Latin American embroidery in the mural. “I met a young boy on the plane from Parkersburg who looks just like that big boy that I painted on the mural. So even though the mural is somewhat future leaning, all of these pieces are already present and could just continue to grow.”
A welcome addition downtown
Now complete, the mural is proudly on display on the side of the Parkersburg Art Center, welcoming locals and visitors to Market Street and the heart of downtown. Local artist Kat Hendrickson participated in painting the mural panels and said she is thrilled with the way the mural came together.
Joining the painting parties made me feel like I was part of something big, working on a community project to enhance the beauty of downtown Parkersburg.
“The finished mural is very beautiful,” said Hendrickson. “I love the vibrant colors and details. It really brightened up the street and I believe it will attract many visitors.”
She said painting the mural was a great opportunity to meet and collaborate with other community members and the incredible GoodSpace team. “Joining the painting parties made me feel like I was part of something big, working on a community project to enhance the beauty of downtown Parkersburg. As a local artist, it was a great experience to work on a group painting project with people from various ages and backgrounds. I met a lot of new friends and enjoyed every minute we worked together.”
Summer Webb-Sundstrom also participated in the creation of the mural. “This beautiful mural is just what downtown Parkersburg needs right now!” she said. “It has added so much beauty, color, and life to downtown. I hope it inspires everyone to get out and enjoy everything our downtown community has to offer.”
For Siefert, the mural contributes to the vibrancy of Market Street and connects with other arts efforts happening downtown.
“With the formation of the Arts Collaborative of the MOV and the current group of non-profit arts leaders coming together, we are all focused on a renaissance of this district,” she said. “Together we are better! Anticipating the Discovery World Children’s Museum opening late next fall has also helped to fuel this fire. There has always been a lot of love and creative energy in this community. We are just working hard as a group to let that shine.”
We were tired physically but emotionally and spiritually we felt really lifted by the whole project.
McLain described her experience in Parkersburg as a beautiful trust fall. “There’s this sense when you go to a community that you’re not from, you’re not sure if that will enhance the project or if that will limit what the project can be.”
GoodSpace Murals strives to go in listening and creating space for the community to share, rather than dictate or lead in generating ideas. “Giving people space and authority to tell their stories and then engaging with local artists and inviting them to come and work with us has been the model that we lean into but it’s not going to work unless people lean back towards us. If the community and the community organizers don’t also lean in, it’s not going to be the same.”
Parkersburg leaned in, she said. “Everybody leaned in and we got so swooped up. Our team is all women, and we are up there doing physical work 13 to 15 hours every single day and the power of that lean and the power of the community supporting us really made it feel seamless for our team,” she said. “We were tired physically but emotionally and spiritually we felt really lifted by the whole project.”
The official dedication of the GoodSpace Mural will take place on Saturday, October 16th at 6:00 pm at the Parkersburg Art Center. Greta McLain and the GoodSpace team will be present. All are welcome to attend!