Mural On The Wall artists Amber Hansen and Reyna Hernandez stand in front of their mural in downtown Vermillion. They are looking at each other and smile. While Hansen '07, assistant professor of art at the University of South Dakota, and Hernandez '16, senior secretary in the USD English department, have been working on murals together for years, they formally created the Mural On The Wall (OTW) group last fall to bring all their work together under one name. The mission of the group, Hernandez said, is to connect and inspire people through community-based art projects.

“The one constant that runs through each project Amber and I lead is to collaborate with different communities to create public artwork,” said Hernandez. “The opportunity to create public artworks in rural areas has revealed a deficit in this kind of arts experience.”

Over the years, Hansen and Hernandez have led several mural projects in communities around the area. Just last year, they completed a mural in Centerville, South Dakota, that was inspired by personal and shared histories of the people living there. They have also recently led projects in Sioux City, Iowa, and Wagner, South Dakota, among other communities.

The group’s most recent projects are bringing inspirational artwork to the Vermillion and McCook, Nebraska, communities.

A photo of the nearly completed mural in downtown Vermillion taken at night.In February 2022, Mural OTW was approached by members of the Vermillion High School’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA) to lead a collaborative mural project after the organization received a national grant from the It Gets Better Project, whose mission is to empower LGBTQ+ youth around the globe by funding projects that align with their goals. Mural OTW artists took on the project, meeting with GSA members weekly to engage in creative design workshops that inspired the imagery for the mural.

Leading GSA members and individuals in the community, Hansen and Hernandez began painting the mural on the west-facing wall of Café Brule in downtown Vermillion earlier this summer, with the mural currently nearing completion.  

A colorful mural painted on the side of a building in McCook, Nebraska. In May 2022, the art group was invited to lead another mural in McCook, Nebraska. After a year of informational meetings about the project and design workshops that helped generate imagery and content, the group returned in May 2023 to paint the mural. With the help of over 100 volunteers, the 20-by-120-foot mural was completed in just 19 days.

While community members play a necessary role in the actual painting phase of the mural creation, they arguably play an even more essential role in the creative process that comes before.

“The community with whom we’re working with plays a huge role in our process,” said Hernandez. “They ultimately inform the design by contributing their time and energy to collectively imagining the mural at each meeting. This process allows us to create imagery that represents our shared imagining with our group and subsequently works toward creating connections to the broader community who live where the mural exists.

“We hope that the people in the communities where we create feel a connection to the work,” Hernandez added.  

Hansen echoed her co-lead artist’s sentiments, mentioning that the group has meaningful conversations with community members to create murals that everyone can feel proud of and inspired by.

Three artists sit together and mix colors. “In all of the projects, the group works to share information about the process and ethics of creating large, community-based murals with the people who live in that place,” said Hansen. “One thing that we often think about or look for in our conversations is ‘What are the things that people care about that are specifically missing in the community’s visual landscape and could benefit from more visibility and representation?’”

With their list of murals completed and communities impacted continuously growing, Hernandez said that the one thing that she never gets tired of is seeing the impact that art can have.

“One of the things I most appreciate about this kind of work is that it provides insight into the impact that art has on our life,” she said. “I think it’s empowering to see people working together to create something beautiful, and we hope it inspires more arts engagement and advocacy throughout the Midwest.”

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