On the Job Training: ISU Art Students Learn While Participating in Mural Painting Project

May 2 2006

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Jessica Hollon, an art education major from Peru, was one of 21 ISU art students to get the unique opportunity to work alongside a nationally-known muralist to complete Terre Haute's newest piece of public art.
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- A blast of color is catching the attention of motorists driving north on U.S. 41 near the Indiana State University campus. Those colors quickly evolved into images that have become Terre Haute's newest work of public art.

The mural, located on the south wall of the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club, is being painted by Chicago-based muralist Jeff Zimmermann and several ISU students through a Lilly Endowment grant administered by the Center for Public Service and Community Engagement.

The project is the dream of Brad Venable, assistant professor of art education at ISU.

"It started five years ago when I was a schoolteacher. I was looking at all the blank wall space in downtown and the community and thought 'wouldn't it be great if there was a mural or a work of public art to enliven the area,'" Venable said.

The more he thought about it, he talked about the idea to others in the community who also supported the idea.

"But I never had the time or support to find financing to follow through," he said.

When Venable came to ISU, he revisited his idea for a public mural and contacted the Center for Public Service and Community Engagement about his idea and funding opportunities.

"At that moment, the doors fell open," Venable said.

Venable then enlisted the assistance of Nancy Nichols-Pethick to serve as project co-coordinator in order to assist with the planning, grantwriting, artist selection, coordinating student involvement and incorporating the project into her class sessions.

Twenty-one Indiana State students in Nichols-Pethick's beginning and intermediate painting classes are working alongside Zimmermann. Mickie Danforth and Edward Holloman are two students working under the supervision of the nationally-known artist.

Danforth, a sophomore art education and painting major, was excited about being a part of the mural project.

"I'd never worked with a professional artist of his level and I wasn't sure what to expect. But jumping into it, It's been a lot of fun and I've learned a lot about murals," she said.

Danforth helped prime the brick wall that became the artists' canvas and has learned about color techniques for backgrounds and foregrounds from the professional artist, who uses the same techniques Michelangelo used when painting the Sistine Chapel.

"In art history we learn about these techniques, but to be able to be out in the field using them is inspiring," she said.

For Holloman, a junior art education major, it has been an experience that he looks forward to enjoying as he finishes his schooling and as an alumnus.

"It's rewarding to do something that is both meaningful and lasting," Holloman said.

He has learned about the process Zimmermann goes through in completing a mural.

"He takes an idea, transfers it into images, makes those images into photographs and turns those images into a work of art," Holloman said. "There's a lot more to it thank people think."

Holloman is impressed with the fact that from a distance the images look cartoonish, but look totally different close up.

"He uses a very impressionist style of painting, much like Claude Monet," Holloman, recently accepted into the McNair Scholarship program, said.

Nichols-Pethick said the opportunity has been very beneficial to ISU artists. Students are given a glimpse into what it means to be a professional artist while building confidence.

"It instills in them a sense of pride in the program, in their work and the Terre Haute community," she said. "The farther along we get in this project, the more excited they (students) get."

Nichols-Pethick has had to be flexible with her class time to accommodate the students' work schedule with Zimmermann.

"It has been an easy tradeoff to make. What they are learning from Jeff is equally valuable to them if not more so," she said.

Zimmermann, who has a studio in Fairbanks Hall where he completed the preliminary drawing and revisions, has been interacting with art students outside of the mural setting.

"He's been very generous with his time," she added.

Hands-on learning and working side-by-side with a professional artist is only one benefit of this collaboration. The experience will also come in helpful for a project in the Fall and in the students' future endeavors.

The fall mural, the second of three murals funded by the grant, will take artwork from local school children that Holloman and Danforth, using processes and techniques learned from the Boys and Girls Club mural, will then transpose on a wall at the children's school.

"This experience is immensely important to each of them. It's something they can list on a resume as a kind of internship experience. I think that is incredibly valuable," Venable said.

Danforth agrees.

"I'm only a sophomore so I?m in the early stages of building my resume and portfolio. This is going to be a huge part of my career. Just to be able to say I worked with a professional artist will help a lot," she said.

The Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club mural is in conjunction with The Gilbert Wilson Memorial Mural project, named in honor of the late muralist from Terre Haute who created several large works of art in public buildings such as the entrance to Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Community Theater and in ISU?s University Hall. Goals of the project are to beautify the Terre Haute community, generate interest in the arts and the downtown area and to distinguish Terre Haute an arts-friendly community.

The mural is the first of three funded by the grant. Venable said he is looking to enlist the support of a professional muralist for the final mural.

Additional support has come from the Terre Haute community in the form of donations. Thompson-Thrift donated the scaffolding while Porter Paints and MAB Paints is supplying the paint being used in the project. Hardee's has allowed use of their parking lot.

Zimmermann is best known for his engaging large-scale murals in Chicago neighborhoods. His dynamic works are reflections of the environments and the communities in which the walls exist.

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Jeff Zimmermann (right) explains the fine points of his technique to art students Mickie Danforth and Edward Holloman.
Originally trained as a graphic artist, Zimmermann used to think creating art on a computer screen was his calling.

"Now, I'd rather be outside with my paintbrush," he said.

Zimmermann found his calling rather accidentally.

"In college, I was a volunteer that worked with street children and families in Peru for three years. When I came back, a friend of mine was working with at-risk teens in a Mexican neighborhood. He asked me to come and help him do some art projects with the kids. We did a mural. The kids really liked it," he recalled.

The children enjoyed the project so much they spread the word.

"They went back to Father Chuck, the pastor of the church and a big influence in this neighborhood. He found me one day, and said, 'Hey, you're that guy who painted the mural with the kids, right? I want to paint a mural across the street from my church. We want an image of the virgin Guadalupe and we want to talk about immigration issues. You can do that?' And I said, Yeah."

Zimmermann had never taken a class in painting prior to that time. Over the winter, he took a painting class at a local college to prepare him for his first project.

"It was the first thing I did, and I felt really good about it. So I decided to become an artist," he said. "Then I just started looking around the city for spots where I could put my work up."

Zimmermann has done a wide spectrum of work -- from commissions and gallery work to community service projects.

"I did a commission for the United Nations down in Honduras a couple of years ago. They invited a bunch of artists from different parts of the world to come and paint public works of art. My mural is on the side of the soccer stadium," he said.

"Since Honduras is a little bit rough, they gave me a couple friends to walk around with me everywhere I went. So I had these three cops or military guys, that were following me around with a couple machine guns and a shotgun," he added.

Zimmermann used to have as many as 14 murals around Chicago. Now the number is down to seven, due to the murals fading, chipping or the building being razed.

"I realize my work is not going to be there forever. The only way I can fight that is to do more and more," he said.

Nichols-Pethick said Zimmermann has been a perfect fit for this project.

"To be a muralist, you have to be bold and expressive. He's so passionate and engaging that he has successfully pulled the students in. It's been a lot of fun," she said.

For more information about the Gilbert Wilson Memorial Mural Project or to contribute to this or future endeavors, contact Venable at (812) 237-3721 or bvenable@isugw.indstate.edu .

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Contacts: Brad Venable, assistant professor or art, (812) 237-3721 or bvenable@isugw.indstate.edu

Nancy Nichols-Pethick, assistant professor of art, (812) 237-2638 or nnicholspet@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or devmeyer@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Twenty-one Indiana State art students combined learning and community service by assisting Chicago-based muralist Jeff Zimmermann on a mural, located on the south wall of the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club.

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