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Mural and MetroTransit artist Greta McLain wants to help people see underserved neighborhoods differently

Greta McLain (left) poses with a MetroTransit bus.

Greta McLain (left) poses with a MetroTransit bus. Images courtesy the artist

Across the Twin Cities, giant monarchs soar three stories high. On schools, community centers, businesses, and parking garages, colors and patterns swirl through large-scale portraits of folks who call the surrounding area home.

After growing up in south Minneapolis and studying under social justice artist Malaquias Montoya in college, Greta McLain began creating large-scale murals around the metro, greater Minnesota, and beyond in 2012.

Her murals are the result of deep input and help from the communities near each project site.

“When I come with all of my lenses to the table, there has to be someone at the other end to say, ‘Close, but this is actually what we need to say,’” she explains.

When McLain’s GoodSpace Murals is called to work on a project, the first stage of the design process involves asking questions about what narratives the surrounding community wants to see reflected, and how new artwork can best serve a neighborhood’s needs.

Such questions can only be answered by those who live in the area, so GoodSpace spends anywhere from an afternoon to weeks at a time building what they call a “container of trust” with the people who will see the artwork day to day.

“There’s a lot of the same narrative across communities: ‘I don’t feel like there’s any representation of me in my neighborhood’ or ‘I feel like my neighborhood has a bad rep and I love it here,’” McLain explains. “How do you feel in your neighborhood? How do you want to feel? Those things can then translate into images.”

It takes a degree of intuition to get to know a community, and McLain finds that city officials often don’t have that in-depth knowledge. For example, GoodSpace traveled to a neighborhood in Tennessee last year for a project with the official city goal of boosting the local economy. After talking with residents, the team quickly realized the true issue was to address the gang war consuming the neighborhood.

“How can this mural be a space of protection for this community that needs some deep shifts in the way the world sees them, and in the way they see themselves?” McLain asked. “We envisioned a mural that was a beacon of protection and that would also communicate a different affirmation to those commuting through the tunnel but never stopping… ‘Be You’ and ‘See Me Shine’ are an invitation to shift the narrative and focus on a different story in the community… but not getting the airspace it deserves.

The mural was painted with the help of volunteers from across the city during MLK Day of Service in January, and installed in March 2018.

Image courtesy the artist

Image courtesy the artist

Image courtesy the artist

Image courtesy the artist

Similarly, at a recent project in Massachusetts, GoodSpace addressed the creeping gentrification of an apartment complex by erecting enormous portraits of current residents on its facade—a not-so-subtle reminder of who calls the area home.

“That mural is not the end-all-be-all,” McLain says. “But the mural reminds us of a different way; it seeds that shift.”

Last summer, GoodSpace spent weeks designing a project at Kulture Klub in downtown Minneapolis, an arts organization focused on homeless youth. To get ideas flowing, McLain sat down with young people and played a series of word-association games, passing sheets of paper around the room to foster collaboration. The resulting mural represents the space’s occupants, and functions as a reminder of the beauty that comes from working together.

Greta McLain and other art makers post in front of the Kulture Klub wall.

Greta McLain and other art makers post in front of the Kulture Klub wall. Image courtesy of the artist

When creating a piece, GoodSpace uses a practice called the “parachute cloth method,” where a work is first painted on cloth before the on-site installation begins. This means that access is increased during the construction of a mural, opening up more chances for people to participate, including those with limited mobility, at paint parties in parks, community centers, and classrooms.

This indirect process also extends their mural-creation season through Minnesota winters, meaning GoodSpace can work on projects year-round.

For their most recent project, GoodSpace rolled out “Nature Connector” buses in collaboration with MetroTransit this June. Hop on a bus wrapped with images of leaves and butterflies, and you’ll end up at a regional park. On either side of the buses, portraits of current students at South High School point the way forward.

Greta McLain (right) poses with a MetroTransit bus.

Greta McLain (right) poses with a MetroTransit bus. Images courtesy the artist

“There are invisible systems keeping a lot of our communities out of our parks, and one of those is access to transportation,” McLain says. “These mobile murals are letting people know that if you hop on this bus you can get to a park and someone from your community is pointing the way.”

Wrapped buses include rides headed to Minnehaha and Theodore Wirth parks in Minneapolis and Como and Lake Phalen in St. Paul.