Celebrating my community with a mural (AIGA SD Idea Fund project, 2018)

Bear with me, I’m going to start at the beginning. I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist in one form or another. My childhood hobbies became a deliberate career choice in the fall of 2016 when I started college as a graphic design and marketing major. Being an art student comes with that unfortunate aura of making a controversial decision (and anyone who’s been an art major you know what I’m taking about). Despite this, I knew the real impact creativity has on everything that we interact with in our daily lives, so I made a goal for myself. I was going to be an involved art major. I would go out of my way to take up new opportunities to grow and be a part of a town that was new to me. Public art had always been something that intrigued me because it was open and something that was for everyone to enjoy regardless of their knowledge of the art world. So, when I heard there was going to be a community mural project in Vermillion, I jumped at the chance to contribute. Fast forward to the completion of that mural on the Coyote Twin Theater in 2017 and I had fallen in love with the process. I knew then (however it was possible), I was going to lead my own mural project.

Fast forward a little more to the Spring of 2018 and I happened upon AIGA South Dakota’s Idea Fund. It described exactly the kind of opportunity for a project that I had hoping for. I wanted to better my community and this was just support I needed to get me started on a mural. I applied and to my excitement I was one of two selected applicants. Suddenly, my dream project was a reality. I had a long journey ahead of me but I was eager and ready to face it head on.


Part 1: Gettin’ Our Hands Messy

I was at square one. Everything involved in jumpstarting a mural was brand new to me and as the sole leader, the first step was speaking my project into existence. I made a powerpoint and thrust myself out into the community, setting up meetings, discussing locations, and just sharing my vision. The beginning steps were a lot of trial and error over the first several months and I took it all in stride which helped grow my confidence. I was lucky enough to get connected with Phyllis Packard who heads up the Vermillion Area Arts Council. She played a pivotal role in securing the final location and providing me the ability to work with the Messy Hands Art Camp. Over the month of July, I met with three different groups of children with ages ranging from 5-16. At the core of what I really wanted for this mural project was for the kids be as involved as possible from beginning to end.

With that in the forefront of my mind, we started with our big idea board and moved on to miniature murals. From a dinosaur playground to emojis playing football we visualized every topic under the sun. We educated ourselves about style, color palette, layouts and more. Ultimately, these discussions had direct influence over the final design that was created. As you can see in the video of my project, the kids really took the time to share what it would mean for a mural to be for them. In the end of these sessions, the common reoccurring theme that the kids felt was most representative of their ideas was, “What makes Vermillion a Special Place to Live?”


Part 2: Gettin’ to Work

After my time working with the kids, I compiled all the mini-murals and started translating them into my own drawings. While this design refining phase was happening, I was also meeting with the principal of Austin Elementary. Kim and the school were supportive from the beginning and it was decided that the Austin Elementary courtyard would become the resting place for the mural. The finalized design came together as a scene of favorite things the children see or do living in Vermillion. The lazy river of our pool flows into the Missouri River, the bike path becomes the walking trail up Spirit Mound, and lovingly named Verm-Cats make an appearance across the panels. The scene is filled with kids doing all kinds activities and it was my hope for everyone to be able to find someone they can see themselves as in the mural.

With design settled, it was time to get painting. I had decided on using panels for my project rather than painting directly on a wall, for the convenience and mobility. After boards were primed, I could get the design traced with a projector (thanks dad for the tech help). Then came the second phase of getting the public involved in my project. Through Ari Albright, I became a part of the Vermillion’s Sanford Community Celebration. The event in itself saw over 400 attendees which resulted in many brushes in hands bringing color to the panels. Armed with plastic wrap, tiny brushes and individual cups of a limited color palette, I got to work leading my little painters in what I can only describe as a large paint-by-number. There were painters across a broad spectrum of ages and some of the event attendees were students of the elementary school where the mural would soon be located. Messy Hands Camp artists were also in attendance and so excited to be a part of bringing their hard work to life. The event went smoother than I could have hoped and the only casualties were some tiny, stray footprints of paint across the boards (added character).


Part 3: Big Reveal

After the Community Celebration, I was so pleasantly surprised by how carefully the panels had been painted. But even with the many layers of paint already on the boards, there were still several colors to add and refine. Alas, we will skip ahead over the many, many late nights I accumulated in the painting room in USD’s fine art building and get to the exciting stuff: the reveal of the mural. On the morning of my planned mural dedication, the panels were introduced and revealed to Austin Elementary Students for the first time and I swear they gasped in unison over their new school art piece. This reaction made the months of preparation and hard work beyond worth it. The amazing custodial staff at Austin transported and installed the panels into the brick while I stood guard to the line of students that was growing to witness the historic event on their playground. The evening of the dedication was complete with cupcakes and lemonade. I was so grateful to be able to share that moment with students at the school as well as friends and family who helped me along in this journey.

Seeing a mural project that I lead hanging permanently on a wall in still unreal to me every time I drive by the school (to make sure it hasn’t magically blown away). I can’t thank AIGA South Dakota enough for giving me this opportunity. I will cherish this experience and memories for a lifetime. All I can do is hope for this mural be a beacon of inspiration for the next generation of artists and that it creates a wave of public art that keeps growing until every city is covered in paint.


Brianna Olson is currently a student at the University of South Dakota, pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in Graphic Design and Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing.

Do you have an idea that could benefit your community? AIGA South Dakota is now accepting applications for the 2019 Idea Fund.

Published February 26, 2019