Smile Politely

“There’s something there”

If you’ve been walking around town the last couple days, you may have seen some of the new storm drain murals sprouting up around the community. (You may have even read my previous article on the storm drain effort, its goals, and where the idea originated.) I was lucky enough to catch up with three of the campus artists via email and get their impressions on the project.

Melissa Farley graduated from UIUC in 2012 and currently teaches art at a local elementary school. She loves bright colors that demand attention, especially when they come together to create a piece brings attention to important issues. About her involvement in the storm drain project, she said, “I have a special interest in street art, especially how street art transforms viewers’ perceptions of the space.”

George Hwang grew up in California before moving to Illinois. He’s currently a freshman at U of I studying Aerospace Engineering. Of the move to Champaign-Urbana, Hwang said, “People always ask me why I decided to come to Illinois when I’ve been living in California all my life, but honestly I just wanted a change of pace. I was in my comfort zone for too long and wanted to see and experience something new, and so far I’ve had a lot of fun.” George feels that his story is similar to other second generation Asian immigrants. “My parents came here for school, and now it’s my turn to go through college, except I don’t study as much as they do.”

The third artist I spoke with, Molly Malec is currently a senior in Advertising. “I specialize in the creative side of ads,” she told me, “doing basically anything a graphic designer does.” She’s also the creative director for an advertising agency on campus called OTH. 

After corresponding with these three creative types, I took a stroll across campus to see their murals for myself and was thoroughly impressed. They represent a variety of artistic backgrounds, styles, and subject matter, but their work ultimately reminds viewers that “We’re All Connected” by this cause, as is written on one side of Molly’s mural.


Smile Politely: Describe your background as an artist, how you became interested in art. Do you have a preferred medium? What do you do with your artwork?

Melissa Farley (pictured, left): I studied Art Education at U of I, but my love of art goes way back to my childhood. I love how every person has the ability to create. It is quite amazing what the imagination can think up and the hands can accomplish. I do all types of art including sculpture, oil painting, casting, and large scale mural painting. A lot of my artwork is inspired by human anatomy, particularly the layers of anatomical structures.

George Hwang: Honestly, I don’t have much art background at all. All my art has been digital in the past. I used Photoshop a lot for fun growing up and taught myself the ropes of it, but I only really began to use it for professional stuff once I joined my high school newspaper. I became graphics editor after a while, and essentially I just had to illustrate digital graphics for my school paper. It depended mostly on what the writers wanted, but what they wanted I drew. Besides that, though, yeah, almost no art background. I’ve never taken a formal art class, and the only thing I do in my free time is doodle in class, if that. I don’t consider myself an artistic person, but a lot of other people seem to think I am due to my experience as graphics editor. Nah, that doesn’t really count; I did it for the people in the class (who I loved). I guess another possible form of art could be knitting? I enjoy knitting a lot in my free time (though I haven’t had much time to do it, and I’m not even that good); that could be another form of “art” I suppose. This is definitely the first project I’ve ever taken on, and I was pretty happy to do it!

Molly Malec (pictured, right): I’ve always loved art, but I discovered my interest in design programslike Photoshop and Illustrator as a freshman. I started designing fundraiser flyers for clubs around campus, and since then I’ve made tons of logos, business cards, banners, t-shirts, and anything along those lines. The best part about creating on these kinds of programs is that you never have to buy paint!

SP: How did you first become aware of the Storm Drain Mural project?

Hwang: Funny story. I was browsing Facebook groups for U of I and adding myself to a bunch of them that seemed even somewhat relevant to me, and eventually just started clicking around. I was bored as fuck one day over summer (this was before school started) and on the Mechanical Engineering page, like three pages down, I saw someone posted a random link to the Storm Drain Mural Project. I mean, how often do you actually just stumble on something like that and actually become interested in it? Anyways, I clicked, saw it looked cool, and then decided to apply. I found out about it like two days before the application was due, too… Yeah, I got lucky. I’m glad I found it.

SP: What first interested you about the project, and why did you decide to contribute? What did you think was important about it?

Farley: I strongly believe that we need to take better care of our environment for several reasons. People are visual creatures and are naturally attracted to imagery. Once you attract the people and grab their attention, then you can raise awareness for the issue at hand. Street art is a great way to reach diverse populations. As a teacher I also believe that education is the best way to get results. The educational component of this project definitely appealed to me.

Hwang (pictured, left): What first interested me about the project is that I wanted to try to step out of my comfort zone and actually do something new. I mean, I already talked about actually going to Illinois for school to get out of my bubble, but does that even mean anything if you don’t do anything new? I wanted to try something I never had before, and I thought this seemed really cool. Honestly the message itself didn’t interest me nearly as much as the fact that I was going to paint a mural and then everyone would see it. It helped my ego. The message became more relevant to me after Eliana [Brown] actually explained where the water flows from around campus and I became more aware of the environmental aspects of the project.

Malec: I love that this project uses art to promote a green cause. Making our town a beautiful place by making murals and cleaning the streams is what makes it so great.

SP: Were you nervous you wouldn’t be accepted based on your qualifications?

Malec: [Laughs] A little bit.

Farley: I actually turned in my application late, so I was a bit worried that the spots were already filled up.

Hwang: Yeah, totally! Well, I really didn’t expect to be chosen. In fact, even now I suspect I only got chosen because they didn’t have enough artists to fill the spots for how many storm drains they had. I definitely felt as if I was coming from an area that wasn’t really what they were looking for. I mean, all my art had been digital in the past, and even then I didn’t do all that much, and then I was just a wee freshman who knew nothing, and then I was also in Engineering. A lot of that ended up being true, too. I mean, it seems like the other people are like art majors or art graduates or art people and yeah, then there’s just me. I’m cool with that, though! I did end up getting a nice, small, cozy location for a mural while others ended up getting large canvases, which does make sense. In my application, I just swore that I’d work hard to make up for my lack of experience.

SP: When you were accepted as one of the artists, how did the overall process work from then on?

Farley: We met with Eliana Brown, who is front-running the project, to discuss ideas, sketches, and spaces. When all that was finalized, we were able to choose 5 colors to use on our mural as well as some other supplies.

Hwang: Well, first they sent an email. Then they sent some more emails with some instructions on it. That was about it, I guess. Eliana kept me updated on how things worked, and eventually she was able to meet me outside of campus and give me a tour of the locations, and I was able to get my location on campus instead of off it. She’s been super helpful and responsive about any questions I had (which were a lot, since I had no idea wtf was going on, honestly).

Malec: When I was accepted as one of the artists, I kept in contact with Eliana Brown in order to find a location for the mural as well as a theme.  I submitted different designs, and one was approved by the university.

SP: Did you have any ideas for the project before you applied to be a part of it?

Malec: Yes, the one thing that really pushed me to apply was that I already had a fun idea for the mural.

Farley: I had some ideas, but they changed drastically after talking to Eliana Brown. I originally wanted to do a type of macabre creature based on an anglerfish or a crocodile. I ended up highlighting local animals that are more on the cute side rather than the creepy.

Hwang: Hmm, not really. I wanted to do something either really dark or really cute. I ended up going the pretty cute way instead because the design had to be approved, and I never even ended up thinking of a design for the dark one. I didn’t expect to be chosen, though, so I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

SP: Can you describe your mural?

Farley: My painting is an exposed waterfall of the Boneyard Creek. In the painting there is a raccoon, turtle, fish, frog, and snake. I painted it pretty stylistically and purposefully chose colors that absolutely could not be ignored. Whether you love it or hate, it you will definitely notice it.

Malec: My location has a very long concrete bench placed between two storm drains.  So far my mural is a long swirling river covering the bench, along with a map of the Mississippi river. The interesting thing about Boneyard Creek is that it eventually flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

SP: How did you come up with your ideas? Was there any source of inspiration for you?

Farley: I was inspired by local animals that call the Boneyard Creek home. I don’t even think people realize that animals live and use the Boneyard.

Hwang: Hmm not really. I sat there, thought of what the cutest things were, and went with it.

Malec: I have no idea how I came up with it!

SP: What message do you want your storm drain artwork to convey to passers by?

Farley: I want my storm drain mural to make people think twice about how their actions impact the environment and animals of the Boneyard.

Malec: My mural portrays the message that “only rain down the drain” is our goal, considering the fact that anything on our streets that gets picked up by rainwater could potentially flow into the ocean.

Hwang: I’d like people to take a second look. I mean, most people walk by storm drains and seriously no one gives a fuck about them. That’s understandable. What really surprised me, though, is that even while I was painting it, some people didn’t even bother to look at me. What the hell, right? I mean I was painting on the sidewalk and people would literally walk past and not give a fuck. There’s art being made right in front of you! When people passed by I said hi and I definitely expected them to talk back to me or at least greet me back, but yeah, some people just totally stone-face it and don’t say anything. That was really surprising to me. Some passersby definitely did stop and talk for a bit, and one person even talked too long. I guess there’s a middle ground, but most people definitely did not say anything. Weird. In terms of the message I’d like to convey, well, I’d just like people to take a second glance. Realize there’s something there.

SP: Is this a change from your artwork in the past? Would you like it to elicit a particular feeling in viewers?

Farley: This mural is a bit cuter than my normal style; however, the intense color is something seen throughout my work. I usually lean towards odd and slightly gross images. I want my mural to pique the curiosity of the community while entertaining them at the same time. I will be adding a ton of detail to entice people to take a closer look and hopefully notice the actual Boneyard Creek right behind my mural.

Hwang: I’d like people to see it and think about where it is. It’s art on a storm drain. Art can be anywhere, I guess, but this is like publicly encouraged graffiti that isn’t vulgar either. In the past, I’ve never done art for a reason. I do art because I want to do art, not because it’s meaningful to me or I want it to be meaningful to other people or a cause or whatever. I’d like this to be meaningful to me, though, as well as the cause. I’d like people to realize that storm drains are there and that they shouldn’t dump. I’d like people to realize that art is there and to look at it. Although I definitely expect most people who pass by to not look and just think “some art, whatevs.” It’s cool.

SP: Do you think people will respond well?

Malec: I hope so. While I’ve been painting, a few people have come up to m, asking what the mural is for. I think that, by the time I finish painting, it will make more sense to the viewer.

Farley: I have already gotten great reactions from people; however, I can see how my mural might be a bit obnoxious to some.

Hwang: Yes, I think people will respond well. I didn’t draw anything obscene or controversial; I mean, it’s a cute orange cat fishing. Who in the world would possibly have a problem with that? That takes a special kind of asshole.

SP: Do you think people will stop throwing trash into storm drains?

Farley: While I wish I could say yes, I am a realist. I think that many people will think twice before they do it, and maybe now that they are aware of the results many will stop, but I do not think that it will be a 100% fix.

Hwang: Into mine? Hmm, not really. Molly down the street had a storm drain with the message “ONLY RAIN DOWN THE DRAIN” so obviously the hippie message is there. Mine doesn’t really convey that. I would love if people did realize that it’s on a storm drain and to realize that storm drains are there, but Eliana says my message promotes the fishing aspect of it, too. I just want people to be aware of it.

Malec: I think they will stop, with the exception of cigarette butts, which seem like the biggest offender. However, once our campus is smoke free in January I’m sure it won’t be a problem anymore.

SP: What do you think is the best way to stop people from throwing trash into storm drains?

Farley: Education. People must know that a seemingly harmless activity actually is quite harmful in the long run. People also need to have access to alternative sources of garbage disposal so there are no excuses to throw trash down the drains.

Hwang: People need to be vocal about it if they see someone else doing it. It’s like going to the bathroom and seeing some asshole who doesn’t flush. I mean, I see that in my dorm bathroom. What the fuck right? I have to live there, too, asshole. FLUSH THE FUCKING TOILET. Anyways, yeah, I think people should speak up more. Stuff like this obviously helps, though. Who’s going to feel okay dumping down when this kinda cute thing is right next to them? NO ONE.

Malec: Other than educating people through sweet murals, providing more trash and recycling bins around the creek would be the best way to stop litter.

SP: After this project, what do you have on the horizon as far as upcoming public artwork is concerned?

Hwang: Nothing really. I don’t consider myself an artist, and I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to do something like this again. If I do, however, I would love to take it. I’ve had a lot of fun doing this.

Farley: While I have no public art projects planned at this point, I love painting murals, so I am sure you will see more from me soon.

Malec: I don’t have any upcoming public artwork, but I would definitely paint another mural if I had the chance! This has been a very fun and rewarding experience.

SP: If you were standing by the storm drain you painted and someone walked by and looked down at it, and then back at you, what would you say to them?

Malec: It’s a reminder to not litter near the streets. Anything picked up in the rain ends up in our natural water.

Farley: I would ask them what it made them think of and whether they thought it was memorable.

Hwang: “Yo, sup. I wonder who did that. Must be a pretty chill dude, huh?” Nah, I mean, I did sign my initials on it. I don’t plan to brag about it, but it’s been important to me, so if I get a chance to share it with someone who I care about, I will. To random people? Nah, that’s not what I’m about. I’ll just be happy they looked. The fact that it’s so public is still kind of wrinkling my brain, though. Seriously, what did I just do? Graffiti? COOL. I’d like to ask them what they think about it and whatever they say (it’s shit, or it’s awesome, or it’s fucking weird), I’ll be happy that they looked.

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