I walk down East Washington Street toward a brick building with blocks of bright colors painted around its doorway. I ring the bell and quickly come face to face with a woman wearing an easy smile. I reach out my hand to greet her, but I’m instead embraced by an enthusiastic German Shepherd (whose name I later learn is Miss Lilian Moosecow, or just “Moose”). No formalities here, it seems.
The woman is Mary Thiefels, founder of Tree Town Murals, “a mural art company in public art, corporate murals and private spaces,” she explained. She’s worn many other hats, though: student at both Pioneer and Community High School, waitress at Jerusalem Garden, bartender at Café Zola and, currently, Visual Arts Coordinator at local nonprofit the Neutral Zone, whose offices I happen to be comfortably seated in. When she speaks, it’s with an obvious affection for her art – specifically, murals – and an intimate knowledge of her hometown – Ann Arbor.
“For years, when I was in high school, there was just a bunch of miscellaneous tag art. There was even profanities,” she explained. “But otherwise, there was nothing really inspiring happening.”
But, of course, Thiefels changed all that. After graduating high school, she began taking advanced studio art classes, studying color theory and life drawing with renowned community artists such as Fred Horowitz and John Lockard. At the age of 19, she created her first mural on Felch Street within a local railroad underpass, a “bridge between neighborhood and city center,” she said. 19 was also the age Thiefels and her friends were arrested for malicious destruction of property.
“We all tried to run, and then we’re like, ‘Wait this is stupid. We’re really not doing anything wrong.’ Like, we really felt like what we were doing was morally correct,” Thiefels said.
And apparently, so did the city – the charges were dropped after overwhelming support from the community and even the Ann Arbor Railroad, who later asked her to continue creating murals for their underpasses. She was given commissions by the Ann Arbor City Council and approached by private businesses including the Arena Sports Bar and Grill, which still bears an early Thiefels mural. “It’s not on my website; it’s sort of embarrassing,” she said. But it was that positive community response that inspired her to take the next step.
“I was like, ‘I’m doing this. This is way too much fun.’ I’m painting. I’m designing. I’m outside. People love it. Like, what is not cool about this?” she added. “So that’s when I decided, Tree Town Murals, that’s my company.”
After its birth in 2007, Tree Towns quickly began to reach other areas of Michigan such as Hillsdale, Whitmore Lake and Chelsea. Thiefels designed murals centering around city pride and town history, honing her artistic skill and learning how to better run her business through collaboration with historians and community members on the projects.
“Any artist will get really good at taking the ideas and concepts from the people they’re working with and collaborating with but then also putting their own unique twist on it,” Thiefels said about her experience. “You can kind of read a community, whether they’re ready for something really contemporary or if they really need something that’s still a little dated and more about the history.”
And, at its core, that’s what Tree Town Murals is all about: community involvement.
Whether it’s an open dialogue about the piece or hands-on involvement, Thiefels makes sure everyone can contribute. To do so, she, along with her business partner and artistic collaborator, Daniel Matanic, created a concept called “paint-by-number.” With a paint brush in hand and some instruction from Tree Town volunteers, members of the community with no artistic experience have the opportunity to be a part of something larger than themselves, to create something for their city by filling in designated parts of the mural.
“The community paint days or participatory aspects have resonance tenfold,” Thiefels said. “Even spending ten minutes on the wall, like filling in a little area, that person takes pride in the whole painting … even if they can’t see their brushstroke perfectly,” she said.
Of the participants involved, many are adolescents, an age group Thiefels has a lot of experience with. In the past, she’s taught summer programs at the Ann Arbor Art Center and adopted teenage apprentices to assist with her projects, many of whom she now calls good friends with amazing art careers.
In 2013, she began working at the Neutral Zone, where student artwork decorates the classroom we’re seated in. Moose lays quietly in his dog bed, a Verner Panton heart-cone chair sits near us. “We found it on the street, but we don’t know if it’s an exact original,” she said. The place oozes with warmth and welcoming, as it should. The nonprofit prides itself on being a youth-driven space, one that fosters creativity and growth and offers a unique partnership between adults and those youths. In fact, 50 percent of the Neutral Zone’s Board of Directors are youths.
“We run visual arts programming, music programming, literary arts programming. We have leadership and education, which are more of our youth empowerment and activism groups. They’re kind of after school activities,” Thiefels said. “A lot of our teens that have gone through two to four years of Neutral Zone activities are now equipped with these ‘21st century skills’ of collaborating and knowing how to represent themselves and their ideas.”
A cohesiveness between the two organizations naturally appeared soon after Thiefels took the job. From then on, she successfully integrated Tree Towns’s public mural aspect into the Neutral Zone’s youth-oriented programs, giving adolescents the opportunity to use mural art as an expressive outlet — something Thiefels views as essential to daily life.
“(Public pieces) inspire people to look at the world differently and think about themselves differently. To promote and sponsor the arts is a viable way for healing our city centers, our economies, and ourselves,” Thiefels said. “I want to be a part of that trend, where public murals are a form of activism or a form of changing minds, a form of changing lives.”
One day, Thiefels hopes to impact cities beyond Michigan, to illustrate the voices and imaginations of communities outside the United States, to add color to the lives of unique individuals all over the world.
“This,” she said, “is just the beginning.”