With each project of her never-ending career, Milwaukee mural artist Tia Richardson learns something new about herself.
She believes that the ordinary people involved in her works are also growing up, expressing what they want a mural to symbolize or help paint it.
“It’s therapeutic; it’s relaxing. It brings people together; there’s a feeling of oneness,” Richardson said. “These are all the things I want for our community. And this is what happens when we do this work.”
Richardson saw the power of community art during his years helping students paint murals in schools. Now full time community artist, it often involves people of all ages in projects across the region.
Richardson’s creative process encourages those involved to recognize the challenges a community faces and envision a better future.
“We create images that show how things can be better and what looks best,” she said.
The ultimate goal is for the community to ask itself the following question: “How do we get there? Where do we go from there? “
Its huge “Ascent of Sherman Park“, which depicts the struggles and perseverance of the residents of the North Side neighborhood, was conceptualized and painted with the the help of dozens of people a year after unrest caused by police violence ravaged the region.
At the time, a longtime resident of Sherman Park called the mural “a blessing and a wonderful job.”
When Richardson begins work on his new mural in a few weeks – a blank retaining wall on West Locust Street in Milwaukee – it will be his last venture in a life immersed in art and design.
Winding path included three colleges
Richardson’s path has been twisty.
Growing up drawing with his artist father’s colored pencils, Richardson didn’t expect to become a muralist. And she didn’t know that community art was something she could do for a career.
His work today is rooted in an early love of color and figure drawing. As a child in Milwaukee, Richardson recalls, she copied pictures of humans and animals from atlases her parents had at home.
“I spent a lot of time, under (my father’s) direction, copying these photos and learning to draw realistically,” she said.
Richardson’s parents provided crucial support throughout her childhood, enrolling her in summer art programs and making sure she had art classes in school.
She attended Milwaukee High School for the Arts.
Richardson enrolled in three colleges in about five years as she tried to choose one of the many career paths related to art or design. After a stint at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and the University of Wisconsin-Stout, she transferred to Milwaukee Area Technical College.
“I didn’t really want to spend four years doing one thing in an area where I had so many interests,” she said. “I loved them all and couldn’t choose.”
The technical skills Richardson acquired in her graphic design major at MATC are still useful today as she creates her murals, she said.
And her experiences in different fields allowed her to learn more about herself – a lesson she would repeat as her career took unexpected turns.
“I was always trying to figure out who I was,” she said.
After working two years after university in a small printing house, the company was taken over by a larger company. Richardson found herself laid off and unable to find a full-time graphic design job.
Thinking of creative ways to use his skills, Richardson began sending out proposals to become an artist in residence in schools. Having no formal training in teaching the arts, she figured she could work with students to design and paint murals.
The plan worked. In the beginning, she had a handful of residences six to eight weeks a year. As her reputation grew, she got busier and busier.
She developed the method she still uses today for community projects: brainstorm, create a picture, draw it on a wall, and let the kids paint it, like paint by numbers.
At first, she received requests for wall themes that she did not find very interesting, such as natural resources in Wisconsin. But she gained appreciation for the work and for the opportunities that would arise after each completed project.
“All of these projects, one after the other, were stepping stones,” she said.
“I only took things as they came,” said Richardson. “Sometimes things would happen that weren’t that attractive or interesting to me on the surface, and I would do my best with that and give my best, and it would lead to the next thing, and the doors would open. “
In 2014, Richardson became a full-time mural artist – something she had never considered doing when struggling to decide on a major in college.
“This is all a journey from something that might not end up being what I thought, or running out of options and then adjusting,” she said. “It turns out that I fell in love with community art through artist residencies. And I had to be fired to find out.
Find your niche
After years of working in schools, Richardson met an artist colleague who had helped communities around the world create their own art. It was a way for people facing traumas such as war to process their emotions. This concept aligned with Richardson’s interests and set her on a new path.
She moved from schools to larger projects involving community members of all ages.
“I started to see: this is where my path leads me. And I felt like I wanted to take it full head,” said Richardson. “This is what I want to do.”
Richardson saw the value of involving a group of people in a big project that they could accomplish together. She knew the power he had over his students, and she believed that adults could benefit from it as well.
“Go from ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I can’t draw’ to ‘Look what we’ve done’ and be excited and enthusiastic – I wanted to see that in the community with the elderly as well,” a- she declared. mentionned.
People need outlets to express themselves, Richardson believes, especially those who face challenges.
“In my experience, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for them to participate in something bigger than them,” said Richardson.
In recent years, she has involved Milwaukee County Courthouse employees in the design of a mural in the building as well as teenagers from the Milwaukee Christian Center.
And after a church in Rockford, Ill. Commissioned a mural, Richardson and more than 200 residents raised $ 30,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to finish it.
The process of creating “Rockford Taking Flight” has been turned into a short film, which will be released soon.
Some murals do not involve the community as a whole, such as “Bridging Milwaukee’s Heart,” painted on the columns that support Interstate 794 in the Third Ward, and his new work on Locust Street, which will feature elephants and children in its conception.
Richardson is often moved, she says, by projects that involve other people.
Many societal problems stem from a lack of will to work together, believes Richardson. Art can break down these barriers.
“I want to help people push their limits. I want to create a way where people want to work together,” she said.
In addition to bridging the gaps between people, the process of designing murals as a community helps those involved imagine a better future for themselves.
Many of the murals created with community input depict their current struggles and visions of hope.
“For them it’s very uplifting. It gives them a chance to share what is important to them, and how they want to see their community improve and what it really looks like” Richardson.
With each new project, Richardson’s motivation for his work grows. After so many twists and turns along the way, she’s sure to be on the right track.
“When I see their reactions, it’s enough for me to want to keep doing it, and do it as much as I can, as many places as I can, with whom I can, and include as many people as possible,” he said. she declared. mentionned.
About this feature
Each week we will profile the difference makers in our community. Some may be journalists; some may be unsung heroes. We will talk about their motivations and their life journey, and in doing so, weave a portrait of what it is like to live in this place, at this time. If you have any topic suggestions, please send them to [email protected] We would love to hear from you.