Portrait of a Painter: Ian Potter
A bridge can be a metaphor, a landmark, a route, a destination. We build them, burn them, cross them, and sometimes, when opportunities converge, paint them.
The Mulberry Street Bridge connects Allison Hill to Downtown in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — a major thoroughfare for residents as they move through the spaces of their lives: home, work, everywhere in between. Previously adorned with the portraits of Harrisburg locals, the bridge was rebuilt in the 2000s, shoring up the structure but removing the artwork with it.
This summer, our Colossal colleague Ian Potter returned to his hometown and joined Sprocket Mural Works in their effort to restore this space. Across 1,610 square feet, Potter and three apprentices painted 14 portraits in the span of a week. The concept came crowd-sourced, remembering the original artwork from the early millennium.
This is Sprocket Mural Works practice, to identify new mural sites and organize content based on community interest. Megan Caruso, co-founder and president of Sprocket Mural Works, explains, “In other neighborhoods people really want to see nature, animals, and colors, but in this particular area of the city depicting people from the community was the overwhelming yes.”
Completing so many portraits is no small task, so Potter was offered help in its execution. He elaborates, “The apprentice idea is something that Sprocket has never done. They were killing it – and a lot of them didn’t have any kind of big wall experience, either! Seeing their skills and their confidence develop was amazing. I feel like they can take that into their own careers, but also instill it back into their communities.”
Caruso agrees, saying, “Ian’s mentorship is what really made a portrait come to life. I cannot believe how much the apprentices evolved in a short week.” That relationship, she hopes, is one that will propel them in their artistic ambitions. “Getting them connected with Ian shows them it is possible to have a career in the arts. Having that mentor–mentee relationship is really valuable. I’d like to see more of that.”
Ian Potter teaching portraiture best practices.
Potter engaged with several non-profit organizations in the past before joining the Colossal team three years ago. In his work at Rebuilding Together NYC, Potter helped provide low income housing upgrades for New York City homeowners, particularly those affected by Hurricane Sandy. His career and expertise, from scenic theater set painting to Colossal murals, was earned by passion and skill rather than by example and convenience.
“I was always drawing and painting as a kid, but I grew up in Harrisburg and I never saw any murals around,” says Potter. “I never saw anybody painting murals — that’s for sure. So I never had any concept that people did this at all. It was cool to go back, take what we learn at Colossal and what I’ve learned in this industry and apply a lot of it…. The cool thing was linking up with Colossal, which we all know working from the inside is an arts-based organization. I think from the outside, people just see us as advertisers, right? Colossal, it seems to me, is very committed to supporting the artists that work for them. And I think bringing our big city, big clientele, mentality down to a level where it can truly affect communities is really, really important. I think the more that we can do that and bridge that gap, the better we’re going to be as a company.”
Bringing our big city, big clientele, mentality down to a level where it can truly affect communities is really, really important. I think the more that we can do that and bridge that gap, the better we’re going to be as a company.
We fully endorse the idea that art has the power to transform spaces, and our new friends at Sprocket agree. Started seven years ago, Sprocket began with a mission to beautify condemned buildings throughout the city, quickly earning the organization a portfolio of murals. Since then, over 50 murals scatter the city, with the third annual Harrisburg Mural Festival (of which the Mulberry Street Bridge is a part) adding nearly twenty more murals to their cause. Caruso offers, “The fastest way to change the way people feel about a place is to make it beautiful. We really started Sprocket to make people feel proud of their city.”
These murals are a demonstration of ability and capability, a reflection of the Harrisburg community and collective aspirations. Caruso considers, “I think we’re all really sensitive people, whether we realize it or not. Our environment and what we see mirrors how we feel about ourselves. I think that enhancing it with something vibrant and joyful is going to make people feel good.” The mural festival improves tourism, small business success, artistic opportunity, city pride, and well being; it also makes days a little better on the way to work, on the journey home.
Home isn’t the place you were born, or where you sleep at night. It’s where you choose to make your impact, to make the world more beautiful, more whole. Each of us is capable of making that contribution — building a better home — be it in Harrisburg, Brooklyn, or beyond.
If you would like to make a financial contribution to Sprocket Mural Works, volunteer to assist in an upcoming project, or apply to join the organization with non-profit experience, please visit their website .
Photography courtesy of Megan Caruso and Sprocket Mural Works.