The Mural Movement

Artist Alice Muhlback at work.

The origins of mural art go as far back as cave paintings, but they remain relevant today as a mirror of society with a diverse and sophisticated spectrum of images: from realistic to abstract, jarring to fanciful, monochromatic to colorful and more.

This art form leaves a positive ripple effect on communities by preserving local history, creating civic pride, encouraging partnerships and stimulating conversation. There is an obvious economic benefit, too: tourism.

Murals attract and fascinate people. From a random painted wall to a planned public art trail, murals can be created anywhere. They are transforming neglected urban neighborhoods, sprucing up business districts, adorning private residences and helping to shape the character of rural towns and villages.

It’s easy to spot murals in the Finger Lakes Region 


In Ithaca, the Public Art Commission (PAC), an advisory group to the Common Council, has established artist, building-owner and funding-
agency partnerships through its Mural/Street Art program. Twenty-five different outdoor sites have been identified for the creation of murals and other street art. More than half are either completed or in the works.

One of those murals was created by Ithaca artist Alice Muhlback, funded, in part, by Tompkins Connect, an organization of civic-minded young professional leaders. Tompkins Connect and the Ithaca Downtown Business Women joined forces to finalize funding with a matching grant from the We Live NY (WLNY) Livable Communities Capacity Grant Program that assists programs that have “a significant impact on the quality of life and the revitalization of the state’s downtown cores.”

This project, a four-month process, was painted upon a 1,500-foot wall in a residential city neighborhood. Muhlback’s chosen images, inspired by the short poem “Risk” written by Anais Nin, form a cohesive theme that tells a story approached from either direction. The mural was a first for Muhlback, who says it was “a dream come true. To paint that large is an opportunity for an artist.”

Sally Grubb, who serves on PAC and also curates art exhibits at the Tompkins County Public Library, praised Muhlback’s unique wall design, saying: “I love Alice’s work and was delighted funding was made available. It is quite unlike all the others we have.”


Rochester’s urban landscape has also been brightened considerably thanks to Wall/Therapy, an annual street art festival launched in 2011. Wall/Therapy is described as “a public community level intervention using mural art as a vehicle to address our collective need for inspiration.” It is the brainchild of Dr. Ian Wilson, who insists there are plenty of helpful “aunts and uncles,” such as co-conspirator Erich Lehman of 1975 Gallery, nurturing this baby along. Wilson, a Rochester radiologist and former graffiti artist, also launched a sister initiative IMPACT! (IMProving Access to Care by Teleradiology), bringing digital x-ray capabilities to under served communities around the world. Both entities are housed under the nonprofit organization Synthesis Collaborative. The thread weaving art and medical philanthropy together, in this case, is imagery.

Every July the week-long Wall/Therapy Festival engages local and international muralists that range from Canandaigua tattooist Lea Rizzo to German graffiti artist Andreas von Chrzanowski, a.k.a. “Case.” It attracts art lovers, city residents and tourists. The artful walls left behind stimulate an ongoing community dialog, and are forming an impressive, growing art trail. There are currently more than 60 resultant works of art on buildings, walls and bridges in several Rochester neighborhoods and business districts.

The lively 2013 roster of 30-plus artists led Wilson to limit the forthcoming 2014 festival to 15 participants. “It’s logistically easier to manage,” he says wryly, noting that this year, it will be more thematic, too, curated around portraits. But Wilson doesn’t micromanage the artists’ unique vision or style. “Aside from insisting that there’s no vulgarity or explicitly offensive images, I don’t prescribe much more,” Wilson explains. “Some artists paint historical figures. Others paint people they meet in the various neighborhoods. I’ll leave it up to them.”


Mural Mania, a volunteer civic effort that originated in Lyons, is strictly historical. “Art has been a way of depicting history through the ages,” says Mark De Cracker, the Lyons resident who co-founded “Mural Mania: The Preservation of History through Community Art.” It has become, in some respects, a tender tribute to a father and son.

The first mural was a memorial to Winston Dobbins, a pharmacist and local history buff who collected vintage postcards. “Winston’s Dream,” an image based on a 1910 postcard depicting a slice of life in Lyons along the Erie Canal, was painted by Sodus artist James Zeger. The mural was affixed to a former trolley bridge abutment located in what would become the G. Winston Dobbins Park. The park-and-mural project was a successful community wide effort that transformed an unkempt, debris-filled area next to the historic Hotchkiss Peppermint Building alongside the old Erie Canal.

In January 2007, before the official dedication in June, Winston Dobbins passed away. Soon after, De Cracker partnered with Dobbins’ grown son Noel to found the historical mural initiative. Their goal was to create a 50-mile mural trail along the Erie Canalway by 2010.

After the “Winston’s Dream” paint dried, three more murals were created in the summer of 2007: another one by Zeger, and two by muralists Charles “Corky” Goss and Robert “Chip” Miller. Mural Mania was gaining some traction when Noel Dobbins, who was battling scleroderma, a chronic connective tissue disease, died that fall at age 40. While murals had not yet begun to spring up along the Canalway, Dobbins’ passionate promotion of the project had generated a powerful momentum after his death.” The results surpassed his 50-mile dream, and left a growing legacy. “By 2010 we had 75 miles of murals from Syracuse to Macedon,” says De Cracker proudly, estimating that over 70 murals have now been created under the auspices of Mural Mania, with many more in the works.

Today, with interest and inquiries from other towns, artists and volunteers, murals are inching toward Buffalo along the Western Erie Canalway. They have a major presence in Wayne County (29 murals and counting), and dot the Great Lakes Seaway Trail.

Walworth Town Historian Gene Bavis became hooked on mural art after he and his wife toured the extraordinary murals of Colquitt, Georgia, during a 2013 vacation. Colquitt has used street art to shape the town’s personality and attract visitors. The town even hosted the Seventh Global Mural Conference in 2010 (The Global Mural Arts & Cultural Tourism Association in Chemainus, B.C., Canada, with 200 members in six countries, produces the biennial conference). Bavis contacted Mark De Cracker after his trip, eager to get involved with Mural Mania and, of course, have a mural painted in Walworth.

Bavis and De Cracker will be attending the 2014 Ninth Global Mural Conference, this time to be held in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in August. On behalf of Mural Mania, they will make a formal pitch to host the next conference right here, adding mural art as one of the many vibrant reasons for people to visit and play in the Finger Lakes.


“An authentic mural is applied directly to a surface used to define a space,” explains Bristol illustrator Amy Colburn, who began painting murals in 1993. “This automatically makes it interactive. You can touch it, sit by it and view it close up or far away.”

While Colburn creates a full spectrum of art,
her specialty is murals, evenly split between interior and exterior projects.

One of her recent assignments was a private commission from the Lockwood family to design a playful dog-themed mural on an exterior wall of their boathouse on Canandaigua Lake. The images Colburn painted are of their family pets: a large black Newfoundland and two lively Golden Retrievers. The mural, visible from their dock on the east side of the lake, is often admired by passing boaters.


Find out more about the artists and organizations featured in this story 

Amy Colburn:
Alice Muhlback:
Public Art Commission:
Mural Mania:
Global Mural Arts & Cultural Tourism Association (click Conferences & Symposia for information on the Ninth Global Mural Conference, Sherbrooke, Quebec, August 13-16):

by Nancy E. McCarthy

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