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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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Harvey Wilhelm
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McNally’s summer mural mirrors Grinnell community

The mural is located on the south-facing wall of McNally’s Grocery Store. Photo by Maddi Shinall.

As someone who planned to major in computer science, Tommy G. Lee `22 never expected to design a mural on the wall of McNally’s Grocery Store.

The community-oriented mural came to fruition over the summer of 2021. It was designed by Lee and painted over the course of two weeks in July, with the hard work of community members and student volunteers.

Most of the students on campus at the time were international students, who were unable to return home due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The mural was an effort and opportunity to “give [students] something to come together and work on a project together so that they were able to spend more time with other students,” said Emily Perry, the assistant director of international student programs within the Office of International Student Affairs (OISA) at Grinnell College.

The mural also gave students a chance to connect with community members who signed up with OISA to paint different pieces of the mural.

Perry said she enjoyed being able to bring people from all over Grinnell to meet one another and complete a big project together, especially after a year and a half in a pandemic.

When Karen Edwards, dean of international student affairs & exchange visitors first approached Perry with the idea of a mural in May, they reached out to the Grinnell Area Arts Council (GAAC), the Grinnell College Office of Community Enhancement & Engagement, Facilities Management and Kevin Colby, who owns the wall of McNally’s. Lee was a summer intern with the Grinnell Area Arts Council, as well as an international student from Korea and was immediately asked to design the project.

50 volunteers worked together to paint in the mural, following Lee’s outlined designs. Photo by Maddi Shinall.

In the spring of 2020, Lee moved into off-campus housing when students were told to leave campus as he could not go home to Korea. He connected with the Grinnell Area Arts Council while using the Stew Makerspace, located at 927 Broad St., while the College’s studio art facilities were closed. There, Lee met GAAC Operations Manager Monica St. Angelo and was hired as a summer intern.

Lee took Introduction to Art as a first year and Sculpture classes as a second year, which directly affected his decision to major in studio art. Now he is majoring in art and plans to pursue an arts residency or graduate school. “I just noticed something different, where I really thought it was my passion, so I just continued doing it,” Lee said.

Lee came up with the mural’s design on his own, with feedback from OISA. The goal, he said, was to make the mural an image to welcome both people visiting and those living in Grinnell.

He also tried to integrate recognizable elements of Grinnell, such as the windmill, squirrels and local restaurants.

The mural project was funded by the Grinnell College Office of Community Enhancement & Engagement through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. After getting design approval from all the parties involved, the mural was underway.

Lee sketched the outline of the mural on the wall, creating a “paint-by-numbers”-like system so volunteers could easily paint. Painting the entire mural took two weeks to complete. According to Perry, about 50 volunteers participated, including 26 students.

The whole process was new for Lee, whose art is usually an independent process. “[The challenge] was sharing my vision with other people,” Lee said. He was also aware of how public this project was – anyone coming into Grinnell will see his work.

“It is really easy to be afraid about what you put out into the world, because it is so personal, but I really encourage anyone to make anything they want to put out,” Lee said. Lee traditionally doesn’t work on murals, but focuses on sculptures in his own style, which he calls “Building.”

“When I make art, it’s like the happiest moment in my life.”

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