The people of Bellevue painted this beautiful mural — including the kids!
Two years ago, Bellevue resident Scott Streit purchased a building on Lincoln Avenue, his community’s main street. The small borough, which borders the city of Pittsburgh to the north, has been undergoing a revitalization of its walkable business district in recent years and Streit wanted to contribute to increasing Bellevue’s strong sense of community.
He connected with R.J. Thompson, a board member of Bonafide Bellevue, and together they realized: The large exposed brick side of the building was perfect for a mural. Thompson drew in local graphic designer Jennie Denton of Lamplight Creative, and the Bellevue Mural Arts Program was launched with the help of a grant and community fundraising through IOBY.
There was a buzz building in town. People were excited about the project, and the team knew that the best way to keep that excitement going was to really involve the community in the process. The pandemic temporarily paused work on the mural. But things got underway again this fall and much of the community pitched in to create this public work of art.
Denton knew if she wanted to involve the community fully, her design had to be able to include people with all levels of artistic skills — especially kids. So she made sure the design includes large areas where kids could fill in solid colors.
“We went into it knowing that it would get messed up and could easily be painted over and touched up,” she says. “Even professionals make mistakes and fix them, so it wasn’t ever a big deal.”
Denton had been experimenting with stylized illustrated maps that included simple geometric buildings and bright color blocks, and had designed one of Bellevue for an ad in Pittsburgh Magazine. When Thompson approached her about the mural project, he thought a similar design would work in a “paint by number” process that would allow kids to be capable participants in the process.
As for the type of houses pictured? The quintessential American Foursquare, a home design that is plentiful in Bellevue, was the perfect choice. As one of Pittsburgh’s original suburbs, the Foursquare was the cookie-cutter suburban home of choice at the turn of the century — made to maximize every inch of an urban lot.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
Once they’d decided on a plan, the design was sketched out on three large pieces of a material designed for murals. Soon families were gathering at The Cove Art Center in neighboring Avalon for painting parties. Kids joined the process early on, filling in large swaths of color such as the sky or the dark gray-blue background. Each color had a number, and Denton’s simple design had each geometric shape labeled with a corresponding number. Kids painted alongside their classmates and friends, and Bellevue Elementary’s principal Dr. Michael Amick even joined in to help alongside his students.
Annalise Mehlo, a third-grader in Bellevue, loves anything to do with art and creative spaces, so being a part of this project was a dream come true for her. She enjoyed working on the project with her friends, and was truly bowled over when she saw the mural hanging in the community after it was installed on Nov. 6.
“I felt happy about it because I was a part of something big and it was hung up,” she says. Annalise now gets to pass it daily in the tiny walking community that’s so small it doesn’t even have school buses. Groups of kids stop daily to take photos with their art. Many of them glow with pride. When 3-year-old Naarah McKivigan (who is also my daughter) saw the finished mural, she stopped in her tracks.
“Someone hung my painting up on a house?” she marveled. “I am that good? Wow!”
What are the future plans for the Bellevue Mural Arts Program? The team has no intention of stopping with just one installation. Thompson is on the lookout for more places to add beauty to the town, and plans to keep kids involved in every way he can.
“We have enough paint and materials to create several more murals that can be applied to the side of buildings, cement steps, garage walls, retaining walls, and more.” And the kids are clearly on board: The enthusiasm of these tiny artists has begun to take over the school itself.
Dr. Amick already had dreams of painting the dull gray interior of the school with bright, powerful colors. Once he volunteered to help on the mural, though, the two projects became one. To date, two “student paint nights” filled with laughter, joy, and pizza have swathed the school in a rainbow of shades, and Denton’s hills of houses will be a theme inside the school lobby.
After a year and a half of kids having little control over the chaos of their world, it’s been both empowering and healing to allow them to take creative ownership of their spaces— and especially for them to be at the center of a large-scale community project.
To view the first project produced by the Bellevue Mural Arts Program, head over to 411 Lincoln Avenue, where the mural has been installed on the side of P Square Scents.