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Students in front a mural

Akila Howard, Claire Bottom, Ian Roberds, and Colin Connelly in front of the popular mural.

Students create award-winning documentary on beloved community mural

Any Normal resident has likely seen the mural painted on the side of 104 E. Beaufort St. just off the circle in Uptown Normal. But what is the history behind the popular artwork that serves as a backdrop on many people’s social media feeds?

Two women talking

Claire Bottom ’20 talks to Natalie Wetzel while creating the documentary.

Four recent graduates from School of Communication Professor Dr. Brent Simonds’ Documentary Storytelling and Production class were grouped together to create a documentary for a project. Claire Bottom, Akila Howard, Ian Roberds, and Colin Connelly directed and produced the award-winning documentary, Making a Mural.

Making a Mural shows the conflicting opinions between creators of the mural and some Town of Normal council members in deciding whether to demolish the building where the mural currently resides or to preserve the artwork and move it to a new location.

“At the time when the project was assigned, there was a lot going on in the community with the mural,” said Roberds. “There were a lot of pieces coming together at the right time so we thought it would be a good subject.”

The group began creating the documentary in October 2019. After restarting the editing process due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the documentary was digitally released June 5, 2020. Roberds said that with interviews and research materials, it was challenging to decide how to whittle down roughly five hours of information into a 23-minute film.

“One of the best things that I learned from making this was the importance of public art. It was eye-opening to see how much history, devotion, and care goes into public art,” – Akila Howard

The students reached out to Natalie Wetzel, co-owner of The Pod, which previously resided in 104 E. Beaufort St. In 2011, Wetzel collaborated with 50 local artists to transform the side of The Pod and bring the mural to life.

The group also met with the Town of Normal Mayor Chris Koos, who discussed tearing down the mural as a part of the Trail East project. The documentary features local artist Janean Baird, current Normal Town Council member Stan Nord, and former Normal Town Council member and General Manager of WGLT Public Media R.C. McBride.

Bottom said her favorite part of creating the documentary was the community’s response. “We weren’t really counting on such a great public reaction because it was just a class project,” said Bottom. “And then we posted on our Facebook page, and within 24 hours we had over 100 followers.”

On its Facebook page, the students called on members of the Bloomington-Normal community to send in photos they have taken in front of the mural. Over 50 of those photos are featured in the documentary.

Two women speaking

Akila Howard ’20 talks to artist Janean Baird in this behind the scenes shot.

Making a Mural won the Broadcast Education Association Award of Excellence in the Festival of Media Arts. The Festival of Media Arts is an international competition and the award that the group received represents the top 20 percent of entrants.

“One of the best things that I learned from making this was the importance of public art,” said Howard. “I live right by the mural and I pass it all the time but it’s one of those things that you know is there but you don’t get to see the story behind it. It was eye-opening to see how much history, devotion, and care goes into public art.”

While the mural is frequently photographed, the full history behind it is hardly known. Thanks to the digging and curiosity of these Redbird documentarians, viewers can see what went into making the mural and why the artists are currently fighting to keep their art preserved.