When 2018 graduate Sejal Mehta walked by the newly commissioned mural, a pair of maize and blue wings painted by artist Kelsey Montague, at the corner of East William and Maynard streets at Tower Plaza, she saw a fabulous Instagram opportunity. She posed underneath the wings, threw her graduation cap in the air and had her friend of four years snap the photo.
“It just turned out really well,” Mehta said. “I was wearing a yellow dress that went well with the colors and then I just posted the photo to celebrate being done with everything.”
The mural’s clear invitation for photo ops is exactly what the commissioners intended. The idea for the mural originated in the University of Michigan Department of Communication as part of a yearly initiative to show University constituents the impact social media has. Nicole Sunstrum, director of social media, said her department wanted to foster an appreciation of art and bolster the University’s social media presence.
“The ultimate goal was to provide an opportunity for individuals to appreciate art, first and foremost, and to also take a photograph to share and tag U of M, and feel proud of their University,” Sunstrum said.
To bring this project to life, U-M Social Media worked with the University Arts and Culture Initiative, LSA, Destination Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Sunstrum said she encountered one of Montague’s wing murals in Nashville, Tenn., and after witnessing the long line of people waiting to take photos, thought it would be the perfect fit for the project. Montague’s series of wings are all around the country as part of her #whatliftsyou campaign, which has over 100,000 tags on Instagram.
Sydney Hawkins, the communications manager of the Arts and Culture Initiative, then reached out to Montague and found that her availability coincided with spring commencement. Hawkins expressed her satisfaction with this timing, as well as the mural’s interactive nature and message of positivity. She said she hopes the mural will be long-lasting.
“I think that intersection of social media and art and public space is one of the reasons that we really liked what she’s doing,” Hawkins said. “Not only that her message is really uplifting and kind of the timing was perfect with graduation, but I think the important thing is that it’s going to be there for hopefully many years to come.”
In addition to being maize and blue, the mural has other University-specific elements, such as its images of the block ‘M,’ the Burton Tower and a football helmet. However, the mural shows an appreciation for Ann Arbor as well. Susan Pollay, executive director of the AADDA, noted the mural’s recognition of this intersection of the University and the city.
“This mural speaks to the town-gown relationship that is Ann Arbor,” Pollay said. “Its colors clearly are ‘M Go Blue,’ but it’s located on an apartment building. It very much speaks to why we are that special place to go to school because your experience here is one where we intermingle.”
Mary Kerr, president and CEO of Destination Ann Arbor, believes the mural will become a popular tourist attraction. She also expressed her anticipation of the mural’s presence on social media.
“I think Kelsey Montague’s new installation will definitely become a must-see, not only for locals but for visitors alike,” Kerr said. “I think that visitors and residents and students will love to see this new addition. We especially are excited to see all the selfies and social media posts.”
Both Kerr and Pollay said they were honored to offer financial support for this project. Kerr said an important part of Destination Ann Arbor’s mission is to promote a rich arts and culture scene — in fact, they are working on an advertising campaign that will include local artists’ work. Pollay said the AADDA has supported many mural projects downtown, including the interactive Gene Kelly mural near the Blake Transit Center. She emphasized the value of interactive art and its ability to bring us back to reality.
“What is so marvelous about interactive art is it pulls us back into the world,” Pollay said. “It makes us a part of that real world, gets us out of our head for a few seconds. And we’re actually connecting with the world around us. Artwork has an ability to communicate that no other way can.”
In Mehta’s interaction with the Michigan mural, she thought about graduating and how the University has prepared her to take flight.
“I really like the whole wings part because I feel like Michigan gives us our wings to fly and do all the things that we want to do,” Mehta said. “I really feel it symbolized my whole graduating experience. I hadn’t had a lot of emotions about graduating until this past week, but taking the photo and after I saw how the photo turned out, this is really symbolic. Michigan has given us seniors our wings to go out into the world.”