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Posted on Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 8 a.m.

For mural lovers and mural artists, Ann Arbor is the place to be

By James Dickson

Halton Mural.jpg

Artist Katie Halton works on a commissioned mural on the north wall of Lucky Kitchen at 611 East University Ave.

Melanie Maxwell |

The Ann Arbor Public Art Commission has a perception problem, says Jeff Meyers, who has been a commissioner since February: For all the taxpayer money the commission has spent and will spend, Ann Arbor has nothing to show for it.

The new Municipal Center and the $850,000 work of art the commission bought for it won't appear until Spring 2011 and the choice of German artist Herbert Dreiseitl didn't go over well locally. A commission that set out to "do one project and do it well" with the expensive Municipal Center project still has yet to place its first work.

Jeff Meyers.jpg

Jeff Meyers

That's why Meyers, at the Sept. 14 Public Art Commission meeting, announced plans to start a mural project that will produce two murals next year, three the next, and four the next year.

The new works will be continuing an already-established mural tradition in Ann Arbor, which boasts several well-known murals around town, including the author mural featuring Woody Allen on East Liberty Street, a wall of gigantic ants on Maynard Street and the colorful mural in the alley off Liberty Street near the Michigan Theater.

Murals, Meyers said, are everything that Municipal Center-type projects aren't—they're small, they're affordable, and they can be completed quickly. To contrast, three years will have passed between planning and execution by the time the Municipal Center work is unveiled in May or June 2011 (the city isn't sure which).

"Spending-wise, this is a very modest program, but it could be an impactful one. We want to bring a number of different stakeholders together — us, the DDA, the school system, the library system," Meyers said. "I think this could be a real turnkey for us, going forward, as far as working with other groups."

While the initial effort will focus on city-owned buildings, the commission might be able to place murals on private property if it gets an easement with the property owners.

"How much of what you see when you leave the house is actually engaging you, without trying to sell you something?" Meyers asked, noting that his children, like a good many Ann Arborites, use local murals as landmarks. "We hope to get a whole lot more of that going on in Ann Arbor."

Several new murals have been added to the city's public art stock in recent months. They include a mural painted In late August by Detroit-based graffiti artist Antonio “Shades” on the back wall of the Grizzly Peak brewpub on West Washington Street, a mural on West Liberty Street near the Alley Bar honoring local veterans and, on North Campus, a mural by New York artist Roberto Juarez titled “The Order of the Spheres” on the U-M Aerospace Engineering Department’s wind tunnel dome.

A big chance for a local artist

A new mural on the wall of Lucky Kitchen Chinese restaurant on East University Avenue is an example of the kind of project Meyers hopes to promote. That mural, funded by the South University Area Association with a grant from the DDA represented a big boost for local artist Katie Halton.

When Halton lost her office job at the Ann Arbor News, she and her husband Al saw a rare opportunity.

"The first thing Al told me was that I wasn't going to be sitting on my butt, watching television," Halton recalled. If she ever wanted to support herself as an artist and ditch the desk jobs, her layoff from the workforce would be as good a chance as any, Al said, and that Katie had better take advantage of it.

That she did. Al's speech came right before the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, where Halton was appearing as an "emerging artist" at the South University fair.

"I had to churn out like 50 paintings in a little bit of time, so I was working constantly," Halton said, calling the effort a turning point because it got her in the habit of producing art all the time, as professionals do.

Halton followed up her showing in the art fair with some recent successes, appearing for a second time at the Emerging Artist booth and winning an award and selling her biggest piece yet at the U-M Art & Design School alumni show in July.

Then the phone rang with Halton's biggest opportunity yet: A mural on the 50-by 20-foot wall of Lucky Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant on East University Avenue, and more or less free rein to design it. Maggie Ladd, executive director of the South University Area Association, had a small grant from the Downtown Development Authority to place a mural in the South University area and thought of Halton immediately, even though she'd never done a mural before.

"I had seen a lot of Katie's works, so I knew about her vision and her talent. I had no doubt she would learn what she needed to learn to be able to transfer her work to a bigger setting," Ladd said.

After some conferencing about which design to choose, Halton, Ladd and Lucky Kitchen settled on a cityscape theme featuring a colorful daytime look on the west side, near East University, which turns to nighttime as you look east toward Church Street.

CityScape Mural.jpg

Halton's Cityscape mural when it was a work in progress.

Melanie Maxwell |

Halton hopes the Cityscape Mural is only the first of many larger-scale works.

"There is no template on how to 'make it' as an artist", Halton said. Nor is there a common definition of what 'making it' even means. "Now that I've done this one I'd love to do more mural work in the future, for sure."

She'll probably get another chance in the spring, when the association uses the last of the DDA grant money to place a second mural. Ladd is eying the west wall of China Gate restaurant, facing Church Street, but would need permission from the building's owners to move forward.

If and when that happens, Ladd said she plans to tap Halton again.

"Katie had a design for a giant squid that I really thought was cool," Ladd said. "Or, given our proximity to the (University of Michigan) Exhibit Museum (of Natural History), maybe a dinosaur would tie the area together a bit."

As for how long the murals would stay up, Ladd said "I hope they stay up forever."

James David Dickson can be reached at



Sat, Jan 15, 2011 : 10:51 a.m.

Hi, My daughters visited Ann Arbor and took pictures of the muriel that consist of Woody Allen. It is breathtaking. I was wondering who are the other characters on the wall?


Tue, Oct 19, 2010 : 4:59 p.m.

Public murals can enliven a public space, or create an eyesore, depending on your point of view. I take issue with the selection process, another example of Ann Arbor's back room "wheeling and dealing," and cronyism, rather than an open, well-publicized competition, open to all local artists and selected by a jury of experts. RE: Diego Rivera, the local "muralists" in A2 are not in the same universe. Learn about Rivera's accomplishments here:


Mon, Oct 18, 2010 : 2:26 a.m.

I personally don't get murals, some people do. brick isn't a good painting surface and also is exposed to the elements. last time I checked real art is in a museum, I have not been to many museums that are outdoor. the fact that there is a committee that gets money from the parking that helps people make decisions that effect my vision more than the window shades which the historic commission regulates. if I start my own committee can i paint property that I don't own?

Stephen Cain

Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 10:11 p.m.

I love urban murals. Some are great, some aren't. So what! They add a vibrancy to the landscape. They make it fun to walk around. I'd hate to see them all the result of group think. We'd lose the eclectic, the off-the-wall. In newspapering, we used to refer to the "talking story," the piece which someone would read and then yell to the next room, "Hey Maude, you gotta see this!" Wouldn't it be great to have a couple wall murals scattered around town that would elicit that type of reaction?


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 5:47 p.m.

@montyman If the artists have always worked without pay, then they are amateurs. If they have receieved compensation for a work, they are professionals. They are all artists and you cannot objectively compare art. I am in agreement with you. You can objectively analyze this statement: "For the real mural lovers go to the Detroit Institute of Art." Are they the lovers of real murals? Are they the real lovers of murals? If a mural is a mural it is a mural. Duh! It's real and if you love it, you love a real mural. If you are a real lover of murals, it doesn't matter what mural it is, you love it.


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 5:31 p.m.

"Kudos to Mr. Meyers for being a rare voice of reason on the AAPAC." "Rare voice" is right. Mr. Meyers has missed at least half the meetings of AAPAC since his appointment.


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 3:51 p.m.

Mary Thiefels also did a beautiful and inspiring one this past spring on the outside of Mitchell Elementary. @Walker101: Although I love the Diego Rivera mural at the DIA, to compare it to our local artists and call them amatures is not only unfair, it's not accurate.

Dave from Ann Arbor

Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 2:30 p.m.

Another great mural in Ann Arbor is on the wall of the Media Center at Haisley Elementary School, by local artist Carol Gagliardi. Check it out.

A2 Rez

Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 12:42 p.m.

Could Walker101 please submit an example of his/her work to determine whether he/she is an amateur or professional? Or is he/she just highly supportive of local artists?


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 11:43 a.m.

For the real mural lovers go to the Detroit Institute of Art, Diego Rivera has a real deal on display, once you see his work the rest are amateurs.

Katie Halton

Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 10:11 a.m.

Thank you for the wonderful article, James!!! I would also like to thank the SUAA, the DDA, Lucky Kitchen restaurant, and Mary Thiefels for mentoring me :) If anyone would like to learn more about my work visit my website: To watch a video about the mural project, made by UM Alumni Association, go to

mike from saline

Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 8:58 a.m.

Mr. Dickson, How could you write a story about, murals, mural artists, and Ann Arbor, and not mention Mary Thiefels, and "Tree Town Murals"? Mary's a home town girl [as Ann Arbor as the day is long] who's brush stroke's can be found, not only in "Treetown", but all over Washtenaw County.


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 7:57 a.m.

"Maggie Ladd, executive director of the South University Area Association, had a small grant from the Downtown Development Authority to place a mural in the South University area and thought of Halton immediately, even though she'd never done a mural before." Maggie Ladd should not have made an autonomous decision for the selection of an artist (Halton) for a public mural in Ann Arbor. There should have been a public, well-publicized competition and a panel of experts to serve as the jury. This kind of "who you know" selection process is not acceptable, especially for a public art space.