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Connecting SIU and Carbondale through art

Artist stands in front of mural.
SIU News

Spending 10 to 12 hours a day in sweltering heat 20 feet off the ground on a scissor lift scaffold might not be ideal. But transforming a drab brick wall into an artwork that reflects the vibrancy and spirit within Southern Illinois University Carbondale is Antonio Martinez’s mission.

Martinez, an associate professor and head of undergraduate studies in the School of Art and Design within SIU’s College of Arts and Media, has painted two of three murals planned in Carbondale that reflect the Saluki spirit. His first mural at Illinois Avenue and Mill Street— a large Saluki Dawg head that features logos and symbols relating to various academic areas on campus — was dedicated in October 2022. The second piece, an “eclipse” mural in maroon, black and white that also features a Saluki head, is on the east side of Mountain Valley Properties, 633 E. Main St., in full view of motorists entering Carbondale. That piece was completed in May 2023 just ahead of spring commencement ceremonies. Plans for the third mural in the setting continue, with the location to be determined.

Turning drab into vibrant

Murals offer a glimpse into how vibrant a community is. Carterville, Marion, Murphysboro and Herrin, and Martinez noted, other communities including Portland (Oregon), Ashville (North Carolina), Austin (Texas) and east Nashville (Tennessee) have numerous murals. The mural at Illinois Avenue and Mill Street transformed an area that serves as an entrance to the university and is visible during live camera shots on a local television news station.

“The murals are a great entry point for the community members who may not regularly go to a museum or have not taken an art class,” he said. “It’s a great way for young and old to appreciate art and understand the value of art. I think a lot of times visual art can be downplayed or undervalued. But these murals show that there is value.”

Planning and hard work

Mural painting is more than just slapping a coat of paint on a wall. Martinez estimates about 220 hours went into the first mural, including 30 to 35 hours in design work. Student volunteers and faculty assisted in that project, with a big assist from the city of Carbondale so he could use a projector to trace the outlines onto the building.

“That one was probably the hardest,” he said. “I created the design and did a practice run on the side of the Communications Building. I took measurements of the site and location knowing how large it needed to be,” he said. “The challenge is there was traffic. Luckily, the city worked with me and coned off part of the intersection and let me project off the side of one of their trucks.”

The work would have been more difficult without the city’s help because he would have had to approximate dimensions from a piece of paper onto the wall.

“It’s all about proportions, getting your exact measurements right when it comes to that type of tracing,” he said.

Heights and heat

The work isn’t for the faint of heart. Martinez noted the project required longer hours of work each day to take advantage of good weather needed to set up and tear down each day. On the lift, which at times can shake when a person is up that high, Martinez encountered traffic zooming nearby and the sounds of trains. Even in the heat, he wore a hoodie to keep off the sun and to block his peripheral vision so that he wouldn’t be distracted. Martinez took frequent breaks for water and food and to stretch. And he kept working. Each mural took three to four coats of paint.

“Your body is in self-defense mode. It’s that intense,” he said. “It is physical. You are on your feet. The heat is hitting you. The heat radiating off the wall. It’s basically a pizza oven that you are painting.”

Student volunteers helpful

Most of the student volunteers come from SIU’s art education program, Martinez said, adding that program coordinator Jody Paulson “has been really great sending students my direction.”

“When you are in that field, if you are an art teacher, you will get requests to paint a mural,” he said. “The more experience they have with that, the better for their career outlook.”

Martinez has 10 to 11 mural requests from Carbondale businesses and departments on campus. One of the projects for next semester with students from a street mural production class he will be teaching is for an indoor mural for the zoology program. Martinez said the class will assist with the third Saluki mural project, and work in other locations while also learning intricacies of measurements, paint needs, the importance of color management, cost estimates and project timelines.

Students assisted Martinez in non-SIU-related murals, including the “Swamp Fox” in Marion, that can be seen at the 25:28 mark of the video. In July, Martinez’s “Owl Mural” on the southeast corner of Slabz Skatepark, 609 S. Illinois Ave., Carbondale, was unveiled. That project is part of an Artspace 304 “Welcome Carbondale!” initiative in collaboration with the city of Carbondale, SIU Carbondale, local businesses and private donors. Another mural Martinez completed in conjunction with Artspace 304 is “Shawnee Labryinth,” located on the side of Notcho Fries, 903 S. Illinois Ave, across the street from Quigley Hall.

“I think it’s important to have in mural form a sense of pride. I don’t think every wall in Carbondale needs to have a Dawg head. You can definitely cross a line,” he said with a smile. “I think there is a nice balance with Artspace 304 funding artists who are in the region to generate other murals that aren’t specifically related to SIU. Some are related to the history, the nature or the landscape of the area and that helps form an identity in this area.”

For Martinez, the wonderment that comes from a child who is watching him put paint to brick, asking him how that is done or telling him he’s doing a “good job” is important.

“An art critic can say ‘well done,’” Martinez said. “For me, it means more when it’s a child who has a pure lens and understands.”

Pete Rosenbery — arts and design, architecture, automotive and aviation, humanities, journalism and mass communications, law, public policy, social sciences.

SIU News is produced by University Communications and Marketing - 618-453-2589. Twitter: @SIUCNews
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