Brush Monkeys celebrate the season with art, one window at a time

It’s that time of year. Spirits are high, celebrations are abundant and the twinkly glow of the holiday season is all around us. Midland residents look forward to this time of year for time honored traditions that make our community feel warm and festive during the holiday season – the Santa Parade, Santa House, The Northern Star train, and the beautiful decorations are enough to get any Scrooge reaching for their hat and scarf and heading out in the snow flurries for some holiday cheer.

This year, downtown visitors are delighted by a new addition: business and storefront windows painted with dynamic and charming holiday scenes. Those walking or driving down Main Street will notice the talented work of The Brush Monkeys, an Ann Arbor based painting company.

Mary Thiefels paints the door of the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational.

Brush Monkeys was founded by John Copley over 15 years ago and every season, Copley would hit the streets to spread joy and holiday spirit with his festive window paintings. Originally Copley had about 20 businesses that he painted himself. As the demand grew, he started to take on a group of helpers, one of them being Mary Thiefels. When Copley decided to retire as owner of the business five years ago, he asked Thiefels if she was interested in keeping the tradition alive. She accepted and The Brush Monkeys is now owned and operated by she and her husband Danijel Matanic.

Although Copley no longer runs the business, he still joins the crew regularly and continues to paint. “He makes a cameo a few times a week. We all still really look up to John and he is the holder of some of the designs we still paint. We’ve all learned from him, and adapted the designs, and expanded on them. We always take pride in having John on the crew when he joins us,” says Thiefels.

A steaming hot pizza can been seen in the window of Pizza Sams.

The Brush Monkeys are based in Ann Arbor and their work can be seen each holiday season throughout Washtenaw County. The crew has quite the collective resume – all are experienced painters and hold degrees as professional artists with educational backgrounds ranging from instruction at the University of Michigan to art institute training in Serbia.

“We have five artists that work full time in November painting holiday windows. We also recruit part time helpers every year. New team members are trained in the aesthetic that we go for so that our art is consistent,” says Thiefels.

Mary Thiefels and Danijel Matanic in front of one of their recent mural creations (photo via Treetown Murals).

This year, The Brush Monkeys branched out a little farther from home with their first holiday window debut in a new location – Downtown Midland. With the art on such a fantastic public display, it leads to opportunities for networking and growth.

“Judge Dorene Allen was visiting Ann Arbor and saw our work,” explains Thiefels. “Last year, she invited us to come paint her home where she hosted a Christmas party for friends and colleagues. Guests included members of the Downtown Development Authority and the Midland Area Community Foundation and it just took off from there.”

The whole Brush Monkeys crew, all accomplished artists in their own right (photo via Brush Monkeys).

Guests were impressed with the unique and detailed paintings and quickly realized the potential for the Main Street holiday scene. “That was really the catalyst for us coming to Midland. Through the connection of the Midland Area Community Foundation and the support of Midland’s Downtown Business Association, we were able to paint the windows of 23 local businesses.”

“I saw them at work two years ago in Ann Arbor working on a piece at a local restaurant and asked if they had a stencil they were working with,” says Judge Allen. “To which they laughed, commenting that it was all freehand artwork and gave me one of their cards. I immediately saw the potential for their work in Midland.”

The Downtown Business Association covered half the cost of the artwork, with the business covering the other half and giving input on the design.

Toasting over bourbon at Molasses.

Five artists on the crew made the trip to Midland where they spent four days completing the downtown window art. The team included the collaborative efforts of painters Narooz Soliman, Lavinia Hanachiuc, Colin Wilson, along with owners Danijel and Mary. Together, they worked to transform business and storefronts along Main Street for the holiday season.

Businesses were offered the opportunity to sign up to have The Brush Monkeys visit and Thiefels offered ideas for each window concept. “We’ve been developing an aesthetic for years now so we have a consistency with the designs. I consulted with each individual business and gave them a menu of ideas they could choose from. And of course, we aim to highlight the local attributes of each individual business.”

A wintery outdoor cabin setting at Little Forks Outfitters.

The harmonious designs create a nice flow through Main Street. You’ll see the theme of snowmen throughout town: a cheerful snowman displayed serving pizza at Pizza Sams, a kind paperboy snowman adorns the windows of the Midland Daily News, snow friends lift their glasses in cheer on the main window of Molasses, and playful snow golfers tee off on the front window of the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational office (a favorite among some of Midland’s youngest community members).

As for seeing this project come to fruition, Judge Allen says it has been nice to see all the interaction the artwork has generated. “It’s been fun to see this downtown, and watch people in and around the courthouse take them all in. They are all so individual and unique,” she says.

In addition to snowmen, you’ll also see holiday wreaths, garland and wintery scenes. The strategic building block message on the window of Joyful Tantrum and the gifts to our neighboring communities painted at Go Great Lakes Bay hold clever details appreciated by onlookers. “Some of them are more whimsical, while others are meant to be more detailed and funny to draw your attention and make you smile,” says Thiefels. 

The duo’s vibrant work at Google in Ann Arbor.

“I really like that the windows throughout town had a theme of snowmen and paintings unique to each business's special offering to the downtown area,” says an onlooking community member walking through Downtown Midland. “I can tell that there was a lot of time spent and a great attention to detail. I’m enjoying this addition to Main Street!”

In addition to the holiday window painting business, Mary and Danijel run a parent company called Treetown Murals, also based in Ann Arbor, catering to a wide variety of opportunities to spread art throughout the community. Their mural work can be found in schools, centers, businesses, and personal spaces. When asked what is her favorite thing to paint, Thiefels answered with “I would have to say big walls.”

The group tailors all designs to each of the offices or businesses they paint.

They recently completed an astounding ten story mural in downtown Ann Arbor. “It’s really fun to work outside and really be on display. It’s a unique opportunity to watch artists work. That’s what’s great about public art, you get to share it with countless others.”

The process of both mural work and the holiday windows generate small audiences of onlookers. “We get a lot of people that are just blown away that our work is all freehand. Some of our biggest fans are small children and elderly community members. They think our designs are fun and cute,” she says.

Crystals adorn the windows of Ways to Wellness

And as part of the project in Midland, over 20 kids from the local juvenile care center got to do an art project making their own ornaments with members of the Brush Monkeys team and four kids also did some of their own artwork at the courthouse as well.

“I think they really realized they had some untapped artistic abilities,” says Thiefels.

While this is the first time The Brush Monkeys have ventured outside of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, Thiefels says they are excited about the prospect of visiting more cities throughout Michigan.

“We are looking to expand in other locations. The more artists we can add, the more we can spread out. We are growing every year,” she says.

A mural by the Treetown Murals in Ann Arbor by husband and wife duo Mary Thiefels and Danijel Matanic (photo via Treetown Murals).

There is a short window of time during the holiday season to complete the projects. In just six weeks, the crew will complete window paintings for an impressive 140 businesses this season. 

If it’s not already on your list of things to do around town this season, be sure to bundle up for a stroll down Main Street. The paintings bring joy to all ages while spreading holiday cheer in our hometown.

A paper delivery at the Midland Daily News.

Interested in learning more? Check out to see pictures, videos and learn more about the cool stuff happening with The Brush Monkeys. If you can’t travel to Ann Arbor and see it for yourself, be sure to check out Treetown Murals’ site for more information about their business and a really cool video highlighting the creation of their recent and impressive ten-story mural.


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