RACINE — To those who have driven through Uptown anytime in the last decade, you might remember the smiley face that could be seen on the door of a squat, plain building at the split of Washington Avenue and 14th Street. However, the face can no longer be seen, hidden underneath the striking red of a mural depicting a cardinal on top of geometric teal shapes and sharp black lines, painted by local artist Nicole Miller.
The mural is part of an ongoing project to beautify and revivify Uptown, turning the district into a “gateway to Downtown and something to be proud of,” according to Brianna Wright, Real Racine’s social media manager and co-founder of What’s Up Racine.
Wright and Kristina Campbell — the owner of The Branch at 1501 event venue and co-chair of Visioning A Greater Racine’s revitalization WAVE (Work, Action, Vision, Engagement) team — are working together to bring other murals to the area, to make Uptown more physically attractive. In turn, they hope it will entice businesses, young professionals and entrepreneurs to Racine.
“Uptown was supposed to be an artsy area,” Campbell said of times gone by, a desire she hopes to reignite.
Wright and Campbell, leading the effort for VGR and What’s Up Racine, hope to hire another five local artists to paint murals over the next year or so.
The murals are going to be completely community funded. Miller was paid through money raised at an arts fundraiser at The Branch at 1501, and organizers are currently talking to other building owners to see if they want to get their building painted. More fundraisers are being planned, and a GoFundMe page (gofundme.com/artforuptown) was set up on Friday to collect funds to pay the artists.
“We’re hoping that the first mural brings some attention and some excitement to people,” Campbell said.
They aren’t the only local leaders who think that public installations could make a positive impact on Racine’s more urban areas.
The Racine City Council has approved funding for new way-finding signage for throughout the city and for a design for archways that would cross Main Street in the Downtown area. And, the Downtown Racine Corporation has been promoting Downtown Public Art events every year since 2002, as well as maintaining the large flower pots placed on the sidewalks.
“It really catches your eye when you’re coming around the corner there … It’s good for people to think ‘What else could be on the walls?’” Miller said. “The vibrancy draws people in.”
The idea for murals was borrowed from Black Cat Alley, an alleyway on Milwaukee’s East Side that had its walls covered with public art in the summer of 2016, with more paintings being added this month.
“I think we realized, as a group and by watching what happens in other cities where they put together these mural projects, it really transforms the area and brings it to life,” Campbell said.
Not only has Black Cat Alley brightened its neighborhood in Milwaukee, but it has also played host to concerts, dance performances, an arts festival, and might’ve had a hand in luring in new businesses, like an ax-throwing bar, AXE MKE, which opened right next door earlier this year.
“They’ve really seen a boom in that area,” Miller said.
Why a cardinal?
The building where the cardinal is now perched is home to Bert’s Metal Finishing, 1347 Washington Ave., a metal polishing business run by Terry Sheckles. Sheckles also works next door at D&D Vacuum, 1353 Washington Ave., which his mother owns.
“It looks a hell of a lot better,” Sheckles laughed, although he admitted he kind of misses the smiley face.
When Sheckles gave permission to have his building used as a canvas, he mentioned that he wouldn’t mind if the mural somehow incorporated a cardinal into the design.
Pam, Sheckles’ sister, always associated the bird with her father, who passed away in 2000.
“It’s just like a sign,” Pam said. “Whenever I see a cardinal I say, ‘Hi Dad.’ It became a symbol of him.”
Several artists submitted designs to paint the first mural, but Miller’s was ultimately chosen, in part because of how she incorporated the owner’s desires.
“Let’s take this smiley face and make it into a real mural,” Miller remembered thinking, “just to have vibrancy in this area.”
This article has been updated since publication to clarify city funding for signage and the proposed archway project.