Prominent Ann Arbor overpasses to be transformed through new mural project

A new public art project aims to transform two unsightly but widely traversed Ann Arbor overpasses into murals to be enjoyed by all.
A new public art project aims to transform two unsightly but widely traversed Ann Arbor overpasses into murals to be enjoyed by all.
The project, "Murals That Bridge," is being spearheaded by married Ann Arbor artists  Larry and Lucie Nisson, who have partnered with TreeTown Murals, a local mural and mosaic company owned and operated by the husband-and-wife duo of Danijel Matanić and Mary Thiefels. Laura Russello, founder and CEO of Constellations Consulting, LLC, is handling all fundraising related to the project.
The first overpass they want to make over is located on Huron Street, near the intersection with North First Street, outside the Delonis Center. The second overpass is near the entrance to M-14 on North Main Street. Both overpasses are rusted over and "not very attractive" in their current state, Larry Nisson says. 
"There's so much darkness in the world," he adds. "This is a solution to the negativity in the world — adding beauty."
 Laura Russello and Larry Nisson at the Huron Street bridge near North First Street.
The Nissons' team is currently finalizing the design for the first mural and hopes to complete painting by the end of the summer. The second overpass will be painted in 2024, to coincide with Ann Arbor’s bicentennial celebrations.
"The whole goal is to bring joy to the community, for the whole community to be engaged, to really do something big and powerful that people haven't seen before," Russello says.
These plans depend on successful fundraising. To reach their goals, the Murals That Bridge team has launched a Kickstarter page. 

"The more that people can give, the more art we can have," Larry Nisson says.
The insurgence
Thiefels says the team sees the bridges they'll paint as "gateways."
"So many people come into Ann Arbor using those thoroughfares, so hundreds of thousands of people experience these entryways or gates to our community," she says. "So not only do they align with Larry and Lucie’s mission of bringing art into the neighborhoods, but they also appeal to this public art insurgence that's happening in our community."
Thiefels herself has been at the helm of that insurgence. TreeTown Murals has participated in many public art projects, many of them involving students from Washtenaw County schools.
"If you're in the art world, you're gonna know what Mary does," Larry Nisson says.
 TreeTown Murals' Danijel Matanic and Mary Thiefels at the Huron Street bridge near North First Street.
Thiefels' commitment to public art spoke to the Nissons, who have themselves been at the forefront of innumerable public art projects, many sponsored by the Ann Arbor Art Center.
"Lucie and I only really want to work with the best — and Laura and Mary are the best," Nisson says. "You work with good people, you get good results."
They describe their partnership as natural and somewhat inevitable. They chose to focus on railroad trestles, Nisson says, despite the fact that "everybody always says you can't work with the railroads — they're a pain in the ass."
But through TreeTown Murals, Thiefels has had a long-running relationship with Watco, the company that owns the tracks, and obtaining permission for the murals turned out to be easy. 
The bare necessities

Larry Nisson says the murals are "a win-win" for all involved.
"Art is equity," he says. "Everybody gets to enjoy it."
For him, and for the rest of the Murals That Bridge team, that’s a crucial component to the project at hand.
"The railroad underpasses, to me, are spaces that everyone can experience," Thiefels says.
 The Huron Street railroad bridge looking west.
"The people who live in the Delonis Center, they're going to have the most opportunity to look at [the first mural]," Larry Nisson says. "That's what's so cool about public art — it's not about who has the most money who gets to look at it."

He says that those staying at the Delonis Center, which offers shelter to those experiencing homelessness, will have their basic needs met by the Center, while at the same time, "they're going to be getting the best art in the community out their door." Russello notes that the team also plans to engage participants in the Delonis Center's art program in painting the mural.
Larry Nisson notes that works of art are often locked up in museums, where an entry fee and other barriers must be surmounted before they can be viewed.
"We want anybody to be able to see this art and appreciate it," Larry Nisson says. 
Moving forward
Thiefels says the first big step in the mural project is restoring the bridges themselves. A significant portion of the budget, she says, will go towards removing rust and debris from the surface of the bridges.
That will allow the murals to last longer "instead of just deteriorating after a few years," she says.
"We hope this will be in the public trust for years to come — until somebody else has a really good idea," she adds, laughing.
The budget also includes 10 years’ worth of maintenance, which provides for items like sealants to discourage vandalism.
"There's a lot of different interpretations out there, but tagging over the top of somebody's mural is seen as disrespectful by most people," Thiefels says. "But it happens. And there are ways to clean it up."
 Laura Russello and Larry Nisson at the Huron Street bridge near North First Street.
"If you can do anything good, you're going to have some bad shit happen," Nisson says. "That's just kind of how life works. But you just keep moving forward."
Thiefels adds, "I think it's an opportunity to create dialogue and exchange ideas and revitalize spaces and make them our own — reclaim them through art."
Nisson, Thiefels, and Russello think the Murals That Bridge project is a chance to bring the community together around something unequivocally positive.
"It's just good to come together around something that makes people feel welcome and proud to be citizens of Ann Arbor," Russello says.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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