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On a recent afternoon, as cars zipped under the US 127 overpass on Michigan Avenue, Brian Whitfield fought against the wind to paint the outlines of a mural on an overpass wall. The mural, one of four that seek to brighten the dim overpass, depicts three factory workers on a General Motors production line.
“Each mural will be a single image, each representing different aspects that are iconic to the two areas” of Lansing and East Lansing, Whitfield said.
The murals are part of the $107,000 Under the Bridge project, which seeks to liven up the gateway between East Lansing and Lansing with art, decorative lighting and other improvements. The partially crowdfunded project, announced nearly two years ago, is finally underway this summer.
Whitfield, a full-time graphic designer for the State of Michigan, designed the state’s award-winning Mackinac Bridge license plates and has created posters for Lansing’s JazzFest and BluesFest. He was chosen from a handful of artists to create murals that would use positive imagery to showcase Lansing and East Lansing — not as separate entities, but connected through the overpass.
“We created a list of muralists in the state and brought them together to meet at the Waterfront Bar and Grill, where we had a conversation about if the murals were possible,” said Deborah Mikula, executive director for the Arts Council of Greater Lansing. “We requested proposals from those interested in the project, and we chose Whitfield’s proposal, because he knew the area, lived in the area and was one of the most creative people we talked to.”
Whitfield said one of the murals for Lansing will highlight General Motors, showing three workers in a GM factory. The second Lansing mural, called “Play,” will show people playing basketball with images from around Michigan Avenue in the background.
The other two murals will focus on East Lansing. One of the murals, “Discovery,” will show people catching butterflies and fireflies to represent education. The other East Lansing mural will showcase the festivals that take place in East Lansing every summer, and there will be people dancing to jazz music.
“The Arts Council knew (Whitfield) would change the whole look and feel of the area,” Mikula said.
So far, the complete sketches of “Play” and “GM” can be seen by passers-by on the north side of the overpass. Whitfield said he plans to finish these two murals before starting on the other murals on the other side of the overpass.
“So far the murals are going pretty good and should be completed by August, but no sooner,” Whitfield said.
The project, spearheaded by the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, is part of the group’s ongoing efforts to use public art and cultural attractions to make Greater Lansing an attractive destination for young professionals.
“Under the Bridge is a fantastic example of successful placemaking,” said Bob Trezise, President and CEO of LEAP. “Through a well-executed, artistic and functional installation, this project will be instrumental in uniting the Michigan Avenue corridor and showcasing the global vibe of the region.”
Josh Holliday, the tri-county projects and placemaking manager for LEAP, said placemaking is the strategy of making an area attractive so that people want to interact with the community and decide to live here. In addition to the murals, the Lansing Board of Water & Light is installing 24 decorative LED lights that will illuminate the bridge in different colors.
“The BWL is committed to our community, and this project will make the underpass a more desirable corridor, especially for those walking,” said Dick Peffley, general manager of BWL. “Under the Bridge is a great project that allows us to put our values into action to engage with our community and contribute to the future prosperity of the region.”
The Under the Bridge campaign’s website says the purpose is to turn a “sterile, ugly and non-bikable” area into “a vibrant pedestrian and biker-friendly gateway that instills community pride and builds a sense of connection between two great cities.” Holliday said the project came from a conversation LEAP had with the Michigan Avenue Corridor Improvement Authority, in which they discussed how the overpass is viewed by the surrounding communities as a barrier between Lansing and East Lansing.
Mikula said when the Arts Council found out about the lighting project, they contacted LEAP about the idea for the murals, since there were four dreary concrete slabs that could also be utilized in the project.
“The Arts Council is a matchmaker; we match artists with projects,” Mikula said. “We know the talent out there and we connect them to companies like LEAP that have creative projects.”
Holliday said the project will create a more attractive gateway for the two great cities and highlight their interwoven history.
“It tells the story of East Lansing and Lansing, which is special about the work Brian put together,” Holliday said. “We will see our region thrive if we make it desirable for younger generations, our future CEOs, to want to live here, work here and bring their businesses here.”