"What kept me going were all the people who are excited and invested in it.”
Photos by Megan Monday
Rose | Ashland, WI
“I moved to Wisconsin from Minnesota to go to school at Northland College in Ashland. I knew I was interested in environmental studies, which is kind of what Northland focuses on. Then, I got a chance to study abroad in Central America my sophomore year. We traveled around to different small communities that were doing things for themselves to be self-sufficient with limited resources. It was so eye-opening and it just kind of showed me how I wanted to work within a community and figure out how we could all address challenges together in a sustainable way. I ended up going for a degree in a new program at Northland called Sustainable Community Development.
Not too long after I graduated, I got a job as the assistant planner for the city of Ashland. I use a lot of the skills that I learned from my program for this job. I’m very interested in communities on any scale. I define community as simply a group of people that have something in common. And the interesting work then becomes figuring out how to meet their needs without relying on sources that are from far away or that are not replenishable. The biggest thing is to learn about how to empower people to make positive changes in their own communities.
I’ve been here several years now, and I feel like I’m part of this area. I love Lake Superior and the community that surrounds this region. That's why I have stuck around. I love being able to be outside and around so many natural wonders all the time. It’s really special up here. Being in a place that’s small enough to make deep connections has also led to a lot of exciting opportunities.
One of them was a few years ago when I did a little volunteer project with a couple of my friends. We have artesian wells here in Ashland; it’s one of the many amazing thing about this region. We have flowing, ultra-clean water that's spurting out from the ground.
There's this one spot in particular that's a public well, and people come and fill up their jugs all the time. It's right off the highway and there's a little wooden structure around it.
My friends and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a resource people like, and maybe we could add to it if we beautify it a bit.’ We started a little Kickstarter campaign to make a mosaic mural inside of that wooden structure. When we initiated that, the community support that we received was incredible, like way more than we were expecting. We were even asked to speak at a couple events and our campaign was fully funded really quickly.
We were all pretty young, and so a community project felt kind of daunting. We were a little timid about reaching out to community groups. But every time we did, we got so much support and encouragement that we were able to get that small project done. It was really well received. That experience was inspiring to me. It gave me the confidence to try community art again.”
“Part of what I do as an assistant planner for the city of Ashland is to think about public places. We talk about something called ‘placemaking,’ which is essentially designing or enhancing places for the community to gather or appreciate. The mosaic project I did with my friends at the artesian spring public well was partly that. That project really sparked the idea, like, ‘We should do this in more places!’
In Ashland, we have a place—a tunnel—that connects our downtown to our waterfront. The tunnel allows safe access for all types of people. People with disabilities, little kids, people on bikes…it's the only way you can get from our waterfront to our downtown without crossing the highway. And that connection between our city center and the water, I mean those are two of our most precious resources here.
I was with a couple friends; we were walking through the tunnel. And we were like, ‘What if we just made a huge mosaic fish in the tunnel?’ It seemed like the perfect space for another mosaic. It was just like a big blank canvas.
Around the time that the tunnel mural idea sparked, I picked up one of the magazines we get here in the city called the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Magazine. There was a page in there that talked about if you have a cool idea for your community, you can apply for a little grant to get it started. It was a called a Spark Grant, like something that sparks an idea.
It seemed like a great fit, and I applied. I gave my idea and a rough budget—I knew how much mosaic glass would cost and all that. It started with that, and my boss, our planning director, was really encouraging of me. She was like, ‘Yes! You should apply! You have to do it, that would be so cool.’ I wasn't expecting to get it because over 80 communities applied and they only choose three. But we received it! That grant was what really got the ball rolling.”
“I met with lots of different people that I look up to in the community to ask them advice on what other grants they thought I should apply for and how to really design the project. We settled on the idea that we’d depict animals and plants from our region to show off the ecology that we have here. From a hardwood forest to the wetlands and out to Lake Superior.
After receiving the first grant I got my friend, Mae, involved. She’s the artist who helped me with every piece of the project. We started doing some design work together. I got graph paper and sketched out the tunnel in scale and we just made copies of that and just started playing around with different ideas.
I spent the winter applying for other grants and reaching out to community groups. We received two more grants. They’re both local grants, which was really cool because it was another sign that the community was excited about the work. We had the funds we needed to launch the project!
To involve the community, we created an ongoing workshop that was open to the public. We also went to schools and retirement homes and other places, to teach people how to do the mosaic process. We helped people create their designs and showed them how to lay down the mosaic glass. Sometimes we'd say, ‘Okay, we need you guys to work on fish, or we want you guys to work on pollinators or whatever. We kind of chose different themes for different groups. Then the groups would work on their pieces in their own settings and we would drop in periodically to see how things were going.
At the community workshops, people could do their own designs, too, if they came in and they were like, ‘I don't really want to work on the big deer.’ Then we'd be like, ‘How about a little fish then, there you go.’ So a lot of it was just us figuring out what the parameters were that they could work in, and then giving them direction that way.
That's what we did for the entire summer, we guided the mosaic pieces along as the community created them.”
“In early fall we started transferring all of the mosaic work into the tunnel. There were over 200 people who worked on the project, and about eight of us who were literally down there all the time during the installation. I never could have anticipated that level of dedication from other volunteers. That was one of those coolest things—that different people started becoming real champions of the project.
I had never met these volunteers before the project. They just came to an open workshop night and chose to get really involved and invested. We became this little group, this unit where any of us were willing to do any piece of the project, even the stuff that wasn't really fun. It was an intergenerational volunteer group, too—some people were retired and had time to help.
One of them in particular I met by doing the workshop at the senior center, and she would often be down in the tunnel doing little painting details until, like, 9:00 at night. Then there was my friend, Mae, and others that were closer to my age. There was one person who started coming toward the end and was down there every day with us, just helping out by cleaning, sweeping and scrubbing and all of that kind of stuff. He was recruited because he just walked through the tunnel every day while we were working on it, and he kept telling us how awesome it was. Finally we were like, ‘Well do you want to join us?’ And then he started coming every day to help, too.
When we were down there into the evenings, we would often take breaks to walk down to the water. We started to see some of the real-life animals that we were turning into mosaics in the tunnel. We saw some otters that would come around, we saw a heron and a sturgeon that had washed up on shore.
One night when we were leaving, the Northern Lights were out really bright. It was really special.
As we kept going with the installation, school groups and families started to walk through to just see the project in action. We were saying we wish we had a tape recorder, especially for some of the younger children, to hear what they would say 'cause they were always excited to see the different animals. Just when we were feeling burnt-out over all of the work, someone would walk through tunnel and be like, 'Wow, this is so awesome!" And suddenly we'd feel really good again.
There was one time we were down in the tunnel, it was one of the very last days before the opening party. So it was like 11:00 at night. It was really cold because it was October, we had mittens on and we're painting these last little details. There's a restaurant that's just right up the hill here and a guy had come down and said, ‘I just want to let you know this is so cool. Do you guys need anything like a hot drink?’ So he brought us some tea in these little mugs. It was just so sweet there were four of us down there working late on the final stretch and we had this hot tea to keep us going. We finished it just in time.
The most exciting thing for me was just watching the relationships between the people and the different organizations grow. That's what really kept me going—all these other people who are excited about the project it and invested in it.”
“After we finished the mural, I started to realize that with any sort of creative endeavor that you go into, there's a creative process that feels really jumbled and disjointed and kind of scary. That's just part of it. The project is wrapped up in so many different people and elements that you have to trust that if you just keep going with your vision, you'll eventually get to the end of it and it will be good.
We were asking people in our community to produce individual mosaic pieces, so if they hadn’t been interested, those pieces just wouldn’t have been made and it maybe it would have just been a much smaller project. But because they all did the work, the tunnel ended up being filled with beautiful mosaics. It’s wonderful because all of the people who worked on a piece of it can now come down here and see their work included as part of the bigger mural.
Community art brings people together in the making of it, and that's one way to create pride and build relationships. But even if you don’t work on a project and you're just walking down the street coming across the art, it encourages you to feel good about where you live. And like any piece of art can do, it helps us all to think critically about things presented in the art itself.
I feel really good about the mural and very proud of it. I also think I now have more trust in the creative process and in myself. This project gave me confidence that there’s a high level of interest for this kind of work in our community and that people really do want to participate and contribute. In fact, we’re already thinking about starting a new project with the same core group of volunteers!”
-Rose | Ashland, WI