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'No more big blank walls': STL Mural Project hopes to revitalize city with public art

R.J. Hartbeck, left, and Chelsea Ritter-Soronen are the driving force behind STL Mural Project.
Jim Santel | St. Louis Beacon intern | 2013
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The wall near the intersection of 15th Street and Washington Avenue is like countless other walls in St. Louis: a bit grimy, overlooking a little-used space, and adorned with a faded advertisement from a dim past.

It’s the kind of wall, in other words, that most St. Louisans regularly pass without a second thought.

R.J. Hartbeck and Chelsea Ritter-Soronen hope to change that soon. The pair is behind the STL Mural Project, a community arts group that hopes to beautify vacant lots and empty walls around the city. “No more big blank walls,” Hartbeck said, expressing what has become a mantra of sorts for the project. For now, however, their focus is on one wall in particular, the west façade of Lab1500, an entrepreneurial workspace on Washington Avenue.

“For us, it’s about helping St. Louis … for the people who want to be here,” said Hartbeck, a senior in Saint Louis University’s entrepreneurship program who began the project as a Facebook group to promote public art in the city. Through that group, Hartbeck met Ritter-Soronen, a local artist and restaurant manager. The two began texting each other images of vacant walls that might host murals.

One of the walls that caught Hartbeck’s eye was on the side of Lab1500, which occupies the late-19th century home of Broida Brothers Jobbing Co., whose sign is still partly visible on the wall. When Hartbeck tweeted a photo of the wall over the summer as a possible mural site, Lab1500 responded with enthusiasm. The two sides met, and the STL Mural Project had a canvas. 

The mural is now in the planning and fundraising stages. Earlier this month, the group launched a Kickstarter page; as of Wednesday, the group had raised $5,380 out of a goal of $8,500. Though the group’s fundraising deadline of Nov. 1 is fast approaching — and though according to Kickstarter’s rules the group must reach its goal to receive any money at all — both Hartbeck and Ritter-Soronen are optimistic that they will secure the necessary funds. The mural project won last month’s Sloup, a soup dinner where attendees vote on proposals from local arts groups. The winning group receives the dinner’s proceeds.

Once funding is in place, work can begin, with a completion date set for some time in the spring. The group doesn’t yet have a design, but Hartbeck and Ritter-Soronen said the mural would have an entrepreneurial theme to reflect Lab1500’s mission. The group’s three artists — Ritter-Soronen, Megan Rieke, and Theresa Hopkins — are meeting Thursday to work on a preliminary design, which Ritter-Soronen said they will present not only to Lab1500, but also to surrounding residents and businesses for their opinions.

Hartbeck and Ritter-Soronen hope that this mural will be the first of many, its prominent location on Washington Avenue generating support for future projects.

“Murals are contagious,” said Ritter-Soronen, who noted that St. Louis has a rich mural history that has been obscured by decay and neglect, the kind of half-faded pictures and advertisements that are common on the sides of many local buildings — “ghost murals,” Ritter-Soronen calls them. 

As the organizers of the mural project see it, reviving St. Louis’s mural culture isn’t simply a matter of beautifying the urban environment; it’s also about contributing to St. Louis’ growth and reinvention. When St. Louis appears in the national media, it’s often in stories about declining populations and rising murder rates, Rieke said. In her view, public art is a way for St. Louis to present a different, unexpected face to the country. Hartbeck and Ritter-Soronen agree, pointing out that most of the city’s vibrant neighborhoods — the Loop, Cherokee Street, the Grove — prominently feature public art.

For all of their ambition, however, the group hasn’t lost sight of a mural’s basic appeal. “Public art makes people happy,” Rieke said.

Trish Tully of Chesterfield agrees. Pushing her grandson in a stroller down Washington Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, she paused to survey the line of blank facades that stretches to the street’s vanishing point.

“It would be nice if you walked down (the street) and saw pretty pictures,” she said.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.