Treasures on Public Walls

Michael L Miller, Wyomissing art teacher and founder of Berks Community Murals, started off his walking tour of the murals of West Reading with addressing one the biggest fears of public murals. Many people have seen murals they don’t like– the colors might be garish, or the design primitive. He described the dreaded “Let’s put some paint brushes in the children’s hands.”
But his approach, learned from the Philly Mural Arts Program, is very different. He has been able to retain overall artistic direction, and yet involved many people, including young children, in the actual work.
He showed us an example in the “West Reading Is . . . .” mural on Cherry Street. Residents were invited to write down what they think of when they think about their community.  The answers were many and varied: from skunks to skateboards. All of them were then represented by simple visual stencils. The overall design of the mural was created by Mr. Miller, but young painters were let loose to divide areas into geometric designs, and apply the stencils. The overall design is unified and artistic, while incorporating real meaning.
Another example is “Viral Van Gogh.” Wyomissing Area High Schools Public Art Workshop was trying to come up with a design for a mural on the wall of a pharmacy. One idea was based on Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night. Another was based on greatly magnified viruses. After collective brainstorming, students came up with a design that has the look of Starry Night, but is inhabited by giant viruses that look like starbursts. More subtly in the design are chemical formulas and lab beakers.
During the course of the morning, he gave us all the details: how do they create these giant works of art? What materials do they use? How long do they last? What surfaces are good for murals?
Most are painted on a polyester interfacing material. The design is drawn out and the colors coded. Painting becomes like filling in a giant color by number piece. The individual pieces are then glued to the wall with a clear, acrylic gel glue. And no — they cannot be removed. “Just enjoy them while they are there,” Mr. Miller advised. The life of a mural is 15-20 years. He says, “Then it’s time to make another one!”
The paint used is an acrylic with UV protection manufactured by Nova Color. An additional UV protective acrylic varnish is added to the surface. But eventually direct sunlight will break down the vibrancy of the murals. Additional maintenance may have to be done if the wall becomes damaged in some other way.
As far as the wall surfaces go, rough surfaces can be smoothed. But the cloth panels can otherwise be adhered to brick, concrete block or concrete.. East facing walls are the best. For south facing walls, Mr. Miller recommends use of glass mosaic. This increases the cost, but is not affected by sun damage over time.
The murals in West Reading were mostly funded through the West Reading Elm Street Program, Dean Rohrbach, Manager. The murals are owned by the property owner, and could theoretically be painted over, but that has not happened, nor has graffiti damage.
Initial skeptics have in many cases become ardent supporters of the beautiful murals. Residents prize them. Visitors also find time to eat in one of the many fine restaurants in West Reading, or shop in local stores and art galleries. The murals have become a local treasure.

Kline Street Mosaic 2010
Mosaic on garage on Kline Street. 2010. Designed and created with students in Wyomissing Public Art Workshop.

Classroom of Michael L Miller at Wyo elementary school
Michael L Miller in his art classroom, explaining the details of the creation of murals.

A Walk in the Park by Jane Runyon lead artist
Mr. Miller points out where the four panels of cloth meet on this approximately 10 x 16 foot mural by artist Jane Runyon, 2014. Russ Slocum looks on.

Detail Viral Van Gogh
Detail of Viral Van Gogh, painted on the side of a pharmacy. The overall design takes after Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night, but giant viruses (including HIV) take the place of star bursts.

I and West Reading 2010
I and West Reading, 2010. Designed and painted by students in WAHS’s Public Art Workshop. The mural is inspired by artist Marc Chagall’s painting I and the Village, painted in 1911.

Sixth and Franklin Mosaic Michael L Miller 2012
Blocked in windows look a lot better with these mosaics made by Michael L Miller. This is an example of a south facing wall which is better served by using glass mosaic, which is not subject to fading in the sun.

Detail of West Reading Is . . . stencils of what residents think of when they think of West Reading. Note how the green tree also becomes roof shapes for row houses. Designed by Exquisite Fource, created b youth from Wyomissing Public Art Workshop
Detail of West Reading Is . . . stencils of what residents think of when they think of West Reading. Note how the green tree also becomes roof shapes for row houses. Designed by Exquisite Fource, created b youth from Wyomissing Public Art Workshop