The stories behind the scenes of three new Washtenaw County murals

There's no shortage of eye-catching public art in Washtenaw County, but this summer saw the arrival of three major new mural projects. We chatted with the folks responsible for each of the new murals to get some insights on the inspiration behind them and how they came together.


Robots and ice cream


Go! Ice Cream founder Rob Hess has spent a lot of time looking at the Ypsilanti alley where a new mural by Ypsi artist Gary Horton now serves as a visual treat to the eyes of passersby.

Gary Horton and Rob Hess in front of Gary's mural at Go! Ice Cream.

Hess' company has technically been around for six years, but his ice cream shop hasn't always been located at 10 N. Washington St. in Ypsi. Hess started Go! Ice Cream as a part-time venture, renting kitchen space across the street at the building recently vacated by Bona Sera.


"I would be there churning ice cream from midnight to six in the morning and look out and think what a shame (it was) that here was this alley that was really cool, but super-underutilized," he says. "It always struck me that it could serve as a sense of pride or be used for some sort of secondary messaging for folks as they were walking through, rather than it being an eyesore and not feeling very welcoming."


When the space at 10 N. Washington became available, Hess saw an opportunity to open his own location for his business and revitalize the alley. He had visions of customers relaxing and enjoying their ice cream and of children running around in a nice, safe place. It's a dream come true for him to now see his customers enjoying the alley long after they cash out.


"A lot of the times when you see people sitting outside at ice cream shops, they could be out in a parking lot or on top of a dumpster or by the side of a busy road. It's never exciting and always looks a little desperate," Hess says.


Earlier in the year, during a meeting about a community event that was to be held at the shop, Hess floated the idea of creating a mural to Horton. It turned out that Horton had also thought the alley needed to be transformed and had already put together a sketch of a mural.


It took Horton about four days to complete the mural, which features a number of colorful little robots.


"Gary has been doing these robots all around town and the way I understand it is that the robots are his homage to Ypsi," Hess says. "The intention is that when people see the robots' design, they will think of the city."


Hess says he wanted Horton to convey Ypsi's diversity through the mural.


"There is a lot of diversity and a lot of different opinions, but one of the things I love about Ypsi is that it's a city where the residents are really engaged. Gary captured that with all the robots kind of tumbling out at you, but all of them are clearly going in the same direction," Hess says.


Connecting public art to civic pride


At first glance, the new mural on the Pretzel Bell Building at 226 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor might just look like a beautiful painting with visual references to Ann Arbor's regional culture. But examined with a more discerning eye, viewers should be able to spot some clever details – including an artfully hidden pretzel and bell, placed as a nod to the building's history.

Jesse Kassel's mural on the Pretzel Bell Building.

The mural was initiated by the Art in Public Committee at the Ann Arbor Art Center (A2AC) and commissioned by local real estate professional Edward Shaffran.


"Ed and our committee saw a great opportunity to give the underutilized space a refresh and he loved the idea to commission a mural," says Mike Wolf, A2AC exhibitions coordinator. "We presented about half a dozen ideas from various artists and in the end he was really drawn to Jesse Kassel’s bright, bold colors and designs."


The samples from Kassel, a Detroit-based artist, aligned with Shaffran's passion for old buildings and signage.


"Much of Jesse’s recent work gives a contemporary twist to vintage advertisements one might find on an older building or warehouse, so when we presented the examples to Ed he really connected with the work," Wolf says.


He notes that the Art in Public Committee has ambitions to bring a lot more art downtown.


“Rather than move from project to project, our goal is to create a really robust public art program that attracts artists from around the world," Wolf says.


He adds that A2AC believes great cities are not only defined by their commerce, but also by their unique sense of place and creative energy.


"We hope to inspire our community to dream big and get excited about the great opportunity we have to elevate Ann Arbor as a world-class arts and culture destination," Wolf says.


Challenge everything, create anything


Destination Ann Arbor's mission is to enhance Washtenaw County's economy by promoting it as a destination for visitors.


While the tourism organization does that in many different ways, one of its most recent initiatives is the massive mural it commissioned on the 10-story wall of Courthouse Square at 100 S. Fourth Ave. in Ann Arbor.


Intended to celebrate Ann Arbor's artistic and creative communities, the mural prominently features the phrase "Challenge everything, create anything."


"We wanted to inspire people and remind them of all the good things about our area. We wanted people to see the mural and be inspired to be better and dream bigger," says Chad Wiebesick, Destination Ann Arbor's vice president of marketing and communications.


The project took about one year from concept to completion. Destination Ann Arbor staff wanted to make sure that they had the right artist, the right design, and the right building.


They partnered with Wickfield Properties. The company had previously commissioned a mural on one of its other buildings, which houses the Detroit Street Filling Station.

Mary Thiefels of TreeTown Murals in front of their mural at Courthouse Square. 

To bring their vision to fruition, Destination Ann Arbor staff enlisted the talents of Mary Thiefels, a local artist who serves on the board of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission and is the founder of the award-winning company TreeTown Murals. She worked with her husband, Danijel Matanic, who has painted murals internationally.


"They nailed it," Wiebesick says. "Mary really wanted to create a one-of-a-kind mural for her hometown, so she took the inspiration she got from the phrase 'challenge everything, create anything' and used her own style, in her own way, and came up with the design."


Thiefels and Matanic took three to four weeks to create the mural. Working on specialized power-scaffolding equipment, they started by placing a high-intensity projector on the building across the parking lot from Courthouse Square. They spent all evening tracing the outlines of the mural from a projected image, sometimes working as late as 3 a.m. Then they painted the entire image using exclusively paint brushes and rollers, rather than spray-painting.


Wiebesick says his first reaction to the finished product was awe.


"The more you look at it, the more you see. There are some famous Ann Arbor landmarks and icons," he says. "From a distance it is so captivating, and even up close there is so much going on within it."


He's noticed that many people are taken with the figure at the bottom left-hand corner of the mural.


"The figure is outlined and not in color and could be representative of anyone and the fact that anyone and everyone is welcome in our city of creative thinkers and doers," Wiebesick says.


Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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