MIAD, AmeriCorps & local youth collaborate
People who come to the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center on Milwaukee’s south side will get a new kind of medicine these days. It’s not through prescriptions or preventative treatment, but instead a vision of hope outside the building. It’s art.
The mural promotes the importance of water health, particularly the KinnickinicRiver, which runs through the neighborhood. All you have to do is read the phrase at the bottom: Nosotros Amamos a Nuestra Comunidad Del Rio – We Love Our River Community, written in both Spanish and English.
Elizabeth Emer is an Americorps VISTA member at MIAD and helped to coordinate the project. She says the project was a natural fit for her. “I was trying to arrange a lot of volunteer opportunities for MIAD students, so we just kind of went with it,” Emer explains.
She hopes this mural is a step in the right direction for the area. It’s certainly hard to miss – at 8′ X 20′, the bright colors draw in the viewer. The focal point is the KinnickinicRiver. “The purpose of this is to get people to think more about the KinnickinicRiver in general, because the river is extremely endangered, and the health clinic here has an Environmental Initiative – they are really working to get a lot of people involved in the Kinnickinic River,” Emer says.
Emer grew up in Kenosha and went to school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She decided to stay close to home and help her community through her VISTA assignment. “We design programs and projects that will help build community, especially in impoverished areas,” she says.
The river runs up the middle of the mural, with a downtown Milwaukee cityscape on one side and a Wisconsin forest scene on the other. Says Emer, “It shows how people, and the city, can live with wildlife and nature.”
The best part about the piece? It was designed almost entirely by kids! Youth from the Milwaukee Christian Center and Vieau Elementary School visited MIAD after school and worked on the piece with MIAD art students. Incoming sophomore Becky Brown was one of the lead MIAD students for the project. She says the art students learned a lot from the kids.
“The raw quality of the painting gets [the kids] to see … they can have a brighter future. It’s young people getting involved with the bettering of the community,” Brown points out.
The idea of the project was to have the kids paint wildlife and animals native to Wisconsin on the backdrop. The wildlife designs on the mural range from a big catfish swimming in the river to a bear, to butterflies and even some not-so-native creatures — like a dragon! “We didn’t want to guide them too much,” Emer laughs.
Brown adds, “That’s what we were looking for, the raw, childlike quality to the pictures.”
MIAD’s mission goes deeper than meets the artistic eye. Every year MIAD staff and students organize service events, ranging from mural projects to Habitat for Humanity. The college also features a Service Learning Course, requiring students to complete 35 hours of community service before graduation. This is one of the reasons Brown, who is an Oconto native, decided to attend MIAD.
“I had done so much community service in high school, that that’s something I could hold onto and still get that sense of community here,” she explains.
Now, thanks to groups like VISTA, motivated art students like Becky can help the area’s youth take initiative to better their communities. The hope is that some of these kids will pick up more than a paintbrush, and continue to improve their neighborhoods – but it starts with simple projects like this one. “I think that art in the community – it’s a way to inspire people to want to be involved,” Emer says.
The mural was officially unveiled to the public Friday May 22. It is installed outdoors behind the Health Center, so anyone can see it anytime. The Sixteenth Street Community Health Center is located at 2906 S. 20th Street. The mural will remain on display indefinitely.