Appreciating Ann Arbor’s street art and window painting

Sunday, November 29, 2020 - 5:29pm

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Becca Mahon/Daily

If you haven’t already left Ann Arbor for break, or you’re planning to stay on campus through the winter season, I highly suggest taking a walk downtown to see some of Ann Arbor’s famous street art. While this is often listed as a great summer activity, I almost prefer to venture out in my coat and gloves to experience the cheerful colors of some of the truly gigantic murals lit up by the holiday lights in the trees. I took a trip on Friday to see if there have been any new or exciting additions. 

We’ve all walked past the State and Liberty mural with five one story-tall faces watching the bustling campus street. There are also the maize and blue wings on the corner of East William and Maynard that are on the Instagram of more than a few University of Michigan students. But as you move further from the more central streets, there are some lesser known sites that are also worth a visit.

One is a massive mural that covers the entire side of a seven-story building on East Huron street. This excellent example of modern street art demonstrates how an imaginative art installation can combine with the character of the community. The mural depicts a man splashing paint onto a white canvas; the streams of color gradually morph into landmark campus buildings, musical instruments, mathematical symbols, and landscapes from the arb. The words “challenge everything” and “create anything” spill out of the scene, capturing the exciting academic culture on campus and in Ann Arbor.

There are also innumerable smaller scale artworks scattered around the Main Street area. Graffiti is constantly being updated, temporary masterpieces can be found on stretches of the sidewalk, and even many of the electrical boxes have illustrations by different artists. One of these can be found on Main Street between East Huron and East Washington. This pastel-painted electrical box exhibits “Our Souls are Flowers,” created by Elise Beckman in 2018. Line drawings of people walking away from the viewer are superimposed over a rainbow of softly painted watercolor patches. This beautiful addition to an otherwise unpleasant metal box is the kind of find that contributes to Ann Arbor’s distinctly creative atmosphere.

On this unseasonably beautiful sunny November day, I was reminded of the holiday season by a different kind of street art: the festive window painting in each of the storefronts. One of my favorite parts of Ann Arbor each year is how the city prepares for the gloomy winter months with twinkling lights and decorated windows. As the weather becomes colder, more and more shops’ windows are embellished with shining painted wreaths, sparkling white pines and woollen bundled snowmen.

Most of this custom window art is done by Brush Monkeys, a group of local and regional artists who occupy Ann Arbor’s streets for the month of November. Because of an increasing demand for window art from Ann Arbor storefronts, there are now more than ten artists who leave their mark on the town each year.

“Always kicking off the annual holiday window painting campaign in the late fall, the November painting crew is affectionately known as the Novemberistas,” as noted on Brush Monkeys’ website. While these painters can certainly be elusive, one of my favorite pastimes is walking around at this time of year and catching one of them in the act of touching up the chipped paint on a snowflake or a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

Some notable festive designs are the detailed branches and birds at Sam’s on East Liberty, the ornate wreaths on the windows of Sava’s and the Bank of Ann Arbor, and the ice skating squirrels at Arbor Teas. A personal favorite from last year were the reindeers depicted in all four seasons complaining about the weather while they sip hot drinks on the windows of Comet Coffee.

Whether it’s the permanent murals and art installations or the holiday-themed window painting, the abundance of public art can make the streets of Ann Arbor feel a little more welcoming even in the winter cold. A walk downtown or even just down State Street is a great way to find out more about our campus and community.

Daily Arts Writer Caroline Atkinson can be reached at catkin@umich.edu.

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