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Community Champion: Tia Richardson, Milwaukee Muralist Transforming a Community

Courtesy Tia Richardson

Milwaukee muralist Tia Richardson has seen firsthand the ways that art can transform a community.

A muralist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tia Richardson has seen firsthand that making art can make community.

“Murals offer a way to tell a big story across a scene in a way everyone can relate to,” she says. “And stories are so important because when we find ourselves in them, we can imagine how to use our strengths to move forward.”

Richardson has completed more than 50 mural projects. They have been mounted in schools, businesses, and public spaces across Wisconsin and beyond.

She particularly enjoys connecting with community members and the camaraderie that often develops. Once Richardson has been chosen for a project, she begins interacting with the community to learn about the issues it faces—for example, the need for inclusive, proactive education or the fight against prejudice and inequity. She then creates a mural that depicts a path toward a brighter future. “I love revealing the design to the community—and of course, it’s exciting when the mural is done and can be celebrated and enjoyed,” she says.

Research shows that creative ritual builds emotional resiliency, and working together as a group creates healing connection. “When we come together and paint the mural, it calms the nervous system,” she says. “It helps people get outside of the cerebral process and into an imaginative one.”

In 2017, Richardson helped Milwaukee residents complete a mural called “Sherman Park Rising” in the Sherman Park neighborhood, where the year before there had been a fatal police shooting of a 23-year- old Black man named Sylville Smith that sparked three days of unrest.

The project was supported by the City of Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services in collaboration with Safe and Sound, a group that works for cities’ health by supporting both compassionate policing and youth development. About 150 community members participated, including generating images in hands-on workshops Richardson led. She incorporated their ideas into the design, blocked the scene onto a brick wall on Milwaukee’s West Center Street, and facilitated the painting.

“‘Sherman Park Rising’ taught me that cooperation isn’t necessarily about everyone agreeing on every issue that affects them where they live, but about everyone sharing their truth from the heart,” she says. “I was hired to help the community make a mural, and in the process became part of the community. We came alive together.”

“I’m often very moved and surprised by people’s participation in the mural process after they’ve experienced pain, like with the ‘Sherman Park Rising’ mural,” she says. “It’s important not to underestimate a

community’s willingness to acknowledge the challenges its members are facing in a constructive way.”

Since “Sherman Park Rising,” Richardson has partnered with the Milwaukee Christian Center’s Youth Artists United program to train young people in her mural-making process, equipping them to use the skills in service of their own neighborhoods. She’s also worked with another group of teenagers to develop

and install a 900-square-foot mural called “Nurturing the Roots of Life Within the Community” in the city’s historic Mitchell Street neighbor- hood. Another project was with the Second First Church in Rockford, Illinois, dreaming a mural into being called “Rockford Taking Flight.” With Richardson’s help, the church raised more than $30,000 for the project through crowdfunding, and more than 200 helped paint the panels, which were then installed on its outside gymnasium wall.