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Sarah Unruh ’12

Mural builds community along with a work of art

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Rachel Epp Buller, an assistant professor of art at Bethel College, has experience and success writing grants – she recently received a Fulbright fellowship she’ll use to study in Germany next year.

When, soon after that, she heard about the application for a community mural project, she knew it was something she had to try for. “It seemed perfect for our [Newton-North Newton] area,” she says.

There wasn’t much time – she got information about the call for grants from the Mid-America Arts Alliance, based in Kansas City, Mo., in mid-December 2009 with a due date in January 2010. “There would be one mural project funded in Oklahoma and one in Kansas,” Epp Buller says. “The emphasis was on community-building – how a mural could help bring different parts of the community together.”

Epp Buller focused on some of the “different communities” she saw comprising Newton and North Newton. “We have a lot of diversity,” she says. “Mennonite and Hispanic. North Newton and Newton. A significant older population, with a number of retirement communities, plus tons of kids and young people. I saw a mural as a way to engage parts of the community that don’t often get together.”

As it turned out, she had that experience herself in the grant application process. “Right after I sent the proposal off,” she says, “I found out about Barb Burns’ proposal.” Burns is coordinator of community advancement for the City of Newton. “She went at it from a different angle, lining up pieces like the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses.”

In February, Epp Buller and Burns learned that Newton was one of four finalists for the grant. A committee from Mid-America Arts Alliance then came for a site visit. “I didn’t think we would get it,” Epp Buller admits, “especially when I found out Greensburg was a finalist.” Greensburg, in western Kansas, was virtually destroyed by a tornado in 2007 and has gained national publicity for its “green” rebuilding projects.

Nonetheless, Newton did, in fact, ultimately produce the successful proposal.

“Before Newton was even a finalist,” Epp Buller says, “the grant committee got [Barb and me] together to see if we could work together. And it has been fabulous working with her. We connect to very different segments of the community. It didn’t hurt that we had two proposals – in the end, I think it really helped.”

Besides Epp Buller and Burns, the other local person with responsibility for coordinating the grant implementation was Joe Loganbill, who directs Carriage Factory Gallery in Newton. That was where the first community meeting to start planning the mural took place in July. The design team that formed out of the initial meeting continued to meet at Carriage Factory.

At that time, the community met the lead artist for the proposal, nationally recognized mural artist Dave Loewenstein of Lawrence. His assistants on the project, who would spend most of the next two months in Newton, were Erika Nelson, Lucas, and Wichita native Matthew Farley.

Epp Buller’s role through the next two months was, she says, “detail work – helping Dave, Erika and Matt get supplies, planning the design team meetings with Joe and Barb, setting the next meetings, planning the Sept. 19 dedication celebration and setting community painting days.”

Those were Saturday, Aug. 20, and Sunday, Aug. 21, times when anyone from the community could come and put paint on the mural, which is on the north side of the Combs Organ building at 304 North Main, overlooking the Salvation Army store parking lot.

The turnout, Epp Buller says, far exceeded expectations – “probably about 200 people over the two days,” she says.

“I was amazed at how the community stepped forward,” she adds, “and how many people gave of their time and resources with no compensation, such as Joe Regier of Regier Construction, who gave the use of scissors lifts for two months at no charge. These folks knew there was nothing in it for them financially but they were interested in this community project. It drew a lot of people who would never consider themselves artists.”

Bethel College was a great support as well, she says. “We needed to partner with a 501(c)3 organization who could accept the grant money and distribute it to the artists for supplies and other things. Gregg Dick, Bethel controller, was a big help with the financial details of handling a grant. [New president] Perry White saw the potential for community building and was on board right away.”

White was one of the speakers at the mural dedication, echoing Loewenstein’s hope that the mural “spurs other community projects.”

A bit of Bethel can be seen in the mural, with the inclusion of a threshing stone symbol in three places, one obvious and two a bit more subtle.

“I never had a specific image in mind,” Epp Buller says. “I was always interested to see what was emerging. I was amazed at the continuing level of detail. About halfway into the painting, it looked like it was done – all the surfaces were covered – but details kept emerging.”

The mural spurred at least one additional “community building” project. Danika Bielek, director of the Bethel College Academy of Performing Arts, and Sara Dick, associate pastor of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, organized a dance project based on the mural. They visited with different groups – Newton High School’s Azteca Dancers and senior citizens’ exercise classes in addition to BCAPA dance students – and in the end gathered a group of dancers ranging in age from middle school to long-retired, who choreographed a dance based on what they loved about Newton.

The dance performance, with music by local musicians Jesse Graber, Eric Schrag and Matthew Dudte, was part of the mural dedication.

“The mural is great – the end product is wonderful,” Epp Buller says. “But it was really the process that was most exciting – the community building, the requirement to work through our differences.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.