Q&A with mural artist Wendy Popko

Popko's work in Mount Clemens honors STEM education.Even if you don’t know Sterling Heights artist Wendy Popko, there’s a good chance you know her work. Her colorful murals brighten the south-facing wall of the Utica BP gas station, and the steps from the Mount Clemens courthouse to the Clinton river. The muralist also illustrates children’s books and is planning more work in her city soon. Metromode chats with the talented resident about her humble beginnings and bright future.

Metromode: What initially sparked your interest in murals? 

Popko: I started painting murals about 22 years ago, but they were all indoors. As an artist, I started my career designing area rugs for Stark Carpet, located in the Michigan Design Center. It was there that I met and worked with interior designers. Soon they started asking me if I could paint murals for their clients—I mostly painted kids’ rooms, powder rooms and kitchens. I eventually became so busy that I quit my rug design job to pursue a career filled with painting murals. 

Metromode: And how did you make the leap from there to children’s books?

Popko: After eight years I wanted to start a family and I knew that I couldn’t climb scaffolding and ladders during pregnancy. I caught a break with a small publishing house, Mackinac Island Press, and illustrated children’s picture books. As the years went by, and after having my second child, I found myself torn between wanting to work at their school and my art. I was caught between two worlds and my self-esteem was dwindling. 

Metromode: What gave you boost you needed?

Popko: It was a combination of several things. Firstly, my sister goaded me into a mural contest hosted by the Michigan Renaissance Festival. Secondly, as a parent and volunteering in the school, I saw first hand the issues with the budget cuts at our school and I was frustrated. I remembered I had a voice through my art, and I created an entry for ArtPrize, a mural called “Common Core” that was painted on 500 sheets of recycled student assignments depicting budget cuts in public education. Thirdly, Sterling Heights sent out a call for artists for a mural design competition. 

Metromode: What happened with the competition?

Popko: I lost. But a few weeks later I got an email telling me that they really liked what I had and asking if I would be interested in designing and installing a mural on the back of the BP gas station. Though I had painted murals this size before, I had never painted an outdoor mural,  but I knew I had to do it. I am so glad I did. I feel like a phoenix, rising from the ashes. I have a new love and respect for my craft.

Sterling Pride depicts the bears in an iconic statue at the city's library.Metromode: You called that mural “Sterling Pride”, what’s behind it and what inspires your use of color?

Popko: It was inspired by one of our most iconic public art sculptures-the bears in front of the Sterling Heights Public Library. The globe represents our cultural diverse communities, and the wavy lines represent the Clinton River that runs throughout our community. I think my use of color comes from my years of illustrating. During that time of my life, I really fell in love with adding a pop of color—kind of like my name, “POP”ko. I think it brings it life. It gives energy. I love seeing those bears on a typical grey, gloomy Michigan day.

Metromode: What’s the most satisfying moment for you when you design a mural?

Popko: I love it when people kind of question what I’m doing in the beginning and then near the end, they have the “aha” moment. Then they see what had been in my head all along.

Metromode: What’s next for you?

Popko: In Utica, I am currently installing “Homeward Bound” on the WeatherTech building, next to Shamrock Irish Pub, and I plan to compete in ArtPrize in 2020.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer, project editor, and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. Contact her at katewritesfreelance@gmail.com
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