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Professor and alumni paint mural in Grand Rapids sister city

Posted on August 19, 2016

It was an early morning one day in late 2015 when Sean Hamilton, '16, awoke to a phone call from his former professor, Tim Fisher, who asked, "Is your passport still valid?"

During this conversation, Fisher, associate professor of art and design at Grand Valley, invited Hamilton to join him on an international trip to Grand Rapids' city sister of Bielsko Biala, Poland. There, the two would paint a mural in the heart of the city.

"I didn't hesitate for a second when Tim told me about this opportunity to be an international artist while representing the United States, the state of Michigan, the city of Grand Rapids and GVSU," remembered Hamilton, who specializes in illustration, and founded the Grand Rapids-based design company Cloud N9ne Design.

Realizing that neither of them had previous direct experience painting murals, Fisher and Hamilton called upon Megan Hamilton, Sean's wife, to join their team. Megan graduated from Grand Valley in 2015 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in painting, and is currently pursuing her master's degree in art therapy.

In June, the trio spent two weeks in Bielsko Biala—a city similar in size, climate and production as Grand Rapids, but located in a mountainous region within a six-hour radius to cities like Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Berlin.

Fisher, Sean and Megan were invited to paint the mural by Grand Rapids' Sister City Committee for Bielsko Biala as part of an initiative created by former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell. The initiative aims to strengthen connections between Grand Rapids and its sister cities.

After pitching more than 10 different mural ideas to city officials, the final mural depicts a semi-surreal scene of the three artists (or any visitors to the city) being welcomed by Bielsko Biala, represented by the large central bird figure. The work is derived from the French artist Jean Gerard (also known as J.J. Grandville), whose political work supported the early attempts of democracy in Poland in the 1830s.

"The bear and eagle have political ties to the region that everyone understands, and the frog makes reference to an old building on the same block as the painting," Sean said. "The flowers, called Maki, are all over the region; and on the day of our unveiling, Deputy Mayor Lubomir Zawierucha told me they were his favorite aspect of the painting because Maki represent blood ties and love."

Fisher said the team wanted the mural to not only represent Poland's past and beauty, but also its future. 

"We wanted to emphasize the panoramic quality of the wall as a stage for the continued drama of Polish life and the wonderful welcome we received as we entered their world," he said.

The mural was completed during a time of art resurgence in Bielsko Biala when city officials, along with local art galleries and other venues, are striving to beautify the city.

"If you look at other murals around Bielsko Biala, they are much darker in theme," Fisher said. "I think we created a playful, colorful and historical perspective with our mural. We posted signs in Polish about the project, its symbolism and purpose. While few spoke English, people would stop and talk anyway, and with gestures of approval."

Even some of community members were able to leave their mark on the mural.

"Tim let some small children and a few others who were interested in dabbing a little paint on the wall do so, and then he wouldn't let us touch up those areas because he wanted to preserve those moments exactly the way they happened," said Megan.

Aside from working on the mural, the trio was treated to tours of the city, local castles, the surrounding country side and various art galleries, along with invitations to arts and cultural events, such as Bielsko Biala's Sister Cities Celebration. The group also gave a presentation to high school students practicing English and participated in an unveiling ceremony with the Deputy Mayor.

While all three expressed their joy over the final product, all three equally expressed that the people of Bielsko Biala made the trip an unforgettable adventure.

"The artists we met took us into their homes; we ate at their tables, met their families and learned about their language and culture," Megan recalled. "It set a new standard for me as an artist in my future in regard to how I will relate to other international artists. After all, while language may have cultural boundaries, art never will."