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Laurel District mural project inspires Mills graduates

Imagine you are walking through the Laurel District and come across a mural painted on the outside wall of a local bookstore. Inspired by the uniquely colorful neighborhood, the scene depicts birds from all over the world enveloping the sunset sky using a stencil-like technique. Below is a figure, kneeling on the ground and sewing a larger-than-life quilt that engulfs the bottom half of the scene.

This mural, the concept of Mills College alumnae Sophie Leininger and Jen Martin, will soon become a daily attraction for those who live and spend time in the Laurel District. It is part of the Laurel District Association (LDA)’s Public Art Project, an initiative of a diverse group of local students and professional artists who are creating five murals to be installed in the neighborhood.

According to Thomas Wong, director of the LDA, the Laurel District is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country and each mural was designed with that in mind.

Another sketch of one of the murals to be installed this summer. (Courtesy of Laurel District Association)

Leininger also said that while inspiration for each painting is up to the artist or artists working on them, a lot of the muralists got inspiration from the ethnic, age and socioeconomic diversity that exists in the Laurel.

Wong said it was important to “…have a multi-generational representation in the paintings. That is why we are working with painters from middle school aged to professional artists.”

The murals will be installed along MacArthur Boulevard between 35th Avenue and High Street. One was completed and installed last year and the remaining four — including Leininger and Martin’s mural — will be painted and installed in June on various blank outdoor walls along the corridor.

Leininger, who graduated in May of 2009, is also the coordinator for the project. She said she wanted to participate to fuse her love of art with activism and political change.

“This project was definitely up my alley for sure. When I was a student at Mills, my artwork was not necessarily political, but this has always interested me,” she said. “Art can be an affirmation of the change you want to see or the things you already like [in] your environment.”

Leininger became involved in the project after Mills art professor Hung Liu heard she was looking for work and gave her Wong’s contact information. She said she was excited by the project’s community-driven focus.

“I liked the intention and approach of the initiative. It is a very neighborhood-specific project,” Leininger said.

Martin, who graduated this past December, got involved with the project after Leininger sent out an e-mail to some of her former classmates asking if they wanted to work on a mural with her. Martin said mural-painting has always been something she saw herself doing.

“It just seemed like a great opportunity. I felt that the project itself was really going to liven up the neighborhood,” Martin said.

A sketch of one of the murals Leininger and Martin will be painting. (Courtesy of Laurel District Association)

Each mural is required to incorporate the leaf emblem that is representative of the ‘Grow the Laurel’ theme for the project. According to the project’s mission statement, found on an informational flyer, “the logo was created as a symbol of [the] neighborhood, with all its roundness and its sharp points, its current challenges and promise for the future.”

All of the artists have drawn up their sketches and business and property owners at the four selected locations are currently approving the designs.

Wong said once the murals are finished and installed the LDA will plan a public art walk. The new artwork will also be featured in the annual Laurel Street Fair in August.

The project comes at a time when the organizers hope the murals will beautify the neighborhood, stave off crime and slow down the more than 16,000 cars that drive down MacArthur Boulevard daily.

“This is our first step. It is very exciting to be able to include Mills. This is a very creative way of addressing several issues that we have at the same time,” Wong said.

Another goal of the project is to connect Laurel residents and business owners with students who live and go to school at Mills, located only a mile away.

“We hope to build a stronger connection with students at Mills. It is their neighborhood as well,” Wong said.