Muralism: A Voice for the Community


Elisabeth Oster, Editor-in-Chief

Muralist and mosaic artist Greta McLain has always liked big walls, so to her it made sense that she would pursue the impactful medium of art. In Minneapolis alone, she has created over 30 murals and has also created works in countries such as Argentina, Mexico, and France.
”When I was a kid, I went to an International Fine Arts Magnet School so I was introduced to art through that. I did my first mural when I was in 4th grade. I just really remember it, and it influenced me a lot,” McLain said.
McLain’s work has covered an array of themes that she feels captures the communities surrounding each wall. This includes themes of neighborhood history and how to reconnect over an area of disconnect.
“I convey in the majority of my work a celebration of community, diversity, and looking at the heroes of the community—the kids, the elders, the organizers,” said McLain.
For McLain, there are a lot of experiences and factors that inspired her to create murals for not just herself, but the community as well.
”What really inspires me are people’s stories. I am super interested in people, how we’re different and ultimately have so many things in common. Also, how we can support each other and learn more and more about ourselves,” McLain said.

Greta McLain talking about the community process and feedback she seeks from residents through posters. Photograph by Elisabeth Oster.

She is also inspired by the vulnerability displayed by those who have tried and experienced making art for the first time.
“I think holding a space for people’s vulnerability allows me to continue to move in that space of my own vulnerability, exploring who I am,” said McLain. “I can look at how big I’m allowed to be as a woman in the world who’s doing art on the street.”
In order for this to happen, McLain works with both community organizers and schools to capture the essence of a place and people who live there. So far, she has completed over 15 community projects in the Twin Cities area.
“A mural is like a big billboard because you’re basically being sold what you see there. If we can make that into something that sells the idea that people here have value, then I have achieved what I wanted to convey,” said McLain. “I wanna buy that, I wanna buy the idea that people here have value, that we take care of this place, that we’re dreaming, and that we’re going someplace.”
Growing up in South Minneapolis, McLain was influenced by the community around her, specifically the In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre near where she grew up. In celebration of May Day, every year there would be open puppet and mask workshops for the community to participate in together.
“I feel like in some ways, I am a product of my neighborhood and I’m just pulling that legacy along. Everyone did it where I was from, so now I take art and my art isn’t puppet making, it is taking students and people to make a mural and connect people,” said McLain.
What attracted McLain to a profession incorporating her interest in art, was the fact that murals are for anyone who sees them and can influence each person in a unique way.
“If you go to a museum, the art is beautiful, but they’re not for everyone; there is a specific audience. Working on the street allows people to interact and have an opinion about art,” said McLain. “They can like it or they don’t like it, but regardless, they are interacting and being shapers of their own taste.”
How her murals have been able to connect and inspire others is exemplified in her mural “Sing a Song for Uptown” located among the stores of Uptown Minneapolis. The imagery of the piece primarily symbolizes the natural beauty Uptown has to offer even as it is surrounded by consumerism.
The mural details a woman with flowers, birds, and ribbons in her hair that is playing the ribbons like a violin. She is surrounded by birds in a rainbow palette of colors. Also present is a male figure holding a and cultivating a nest of birds. Although not obvious right away, this image challenges gender roles by showing a male in a rare tenderand caring role.
“The mural also works to do some of the basic beautification of that place; I want others to feel more a part of a place while also being reminded to take care of the environment,” McLain said.
According to McLain, everyone should have a safe space to make art and by making art, they are able to understand art. Art is learned by doing, not just by being taught.
“I think that we really run into culturally this idea that ‘I’m not good enough’ or that ‘that’s not my thing’ or ‘that’s not allowed because you can’t make money doing that.’ I think that in some ways in order to balance that attitude, it’s really important to let there be more invitations,” said McLain.
In McLain’s process, community members are given the opportunity to contribute by creating mosaic pieces and painting panels for section of what will later become a mural. For McLain, it is important that the community that will live around the mural is involved, even though she is the one up on the lift or scaffold.
“I think the more that we push on what we’re allowed to do and how we’re allowed to be, the more freedom we find,” said McLain. “Even as an adult, I’m allowed to be new at something. You can be a student by always learning, it keeps you alive.”

McLain’s studio in Northeast Minneapolis where she works on upcoming and current projects. Photograph by Elisabeth Oster.