With each project in her ever-winding career, Milwaukee mural artist Tia Richardson learns something new about herself.
She believes the everyday people involved in her works grow, too — from articulating what they want a mural to symbolize to helping paint it.
“It’s therapeutic; it’s relaxing. It brings people together; there’s sense of unity,” Richardson said. “Those are all the things that I want for our community. And that’s what happens when we do that work.”
Richardson’s creative process encourages those involved to acknowledge the challenges a community is facing, and envision a better future.
“We’re creating images that show how things can be better and what better actually looks like,” she said.
The ultimate goal is for the community to consider: “How do we get there? Where do we go from here?”
Her massive “Sherman Park Rising” piece, which depicts the struggles and perseverance of residents in the north-side neighborhood, was conceptualized and painted with the help of dozens of people a year after unrest over police violence wracked the area.
At the time, one longtime Sherman Park resident called the mural “a blessing and a wonderful work.”
When Richardson begins work on her newest mural in a few weeks — a blank stretch of retaining wall on West Locust Street in Milwaukee — it’ll be her latest endeavor in a lifetime immersed in art and design.
Winding path included three colleges
Richardson’s path has been circuitous.
Growing up drawing with her artist father’s colored pencils, Richardson didn’t expect to become a muralist. And she didn’t know community-based art was something she could do as a career.
Her work today is rooted in an early love of color and figure drawing. As a child in Milwaukee, Richardson remembered, she copied pictures of humans and animals from atlases her parents had at home.
“I spent a good deal of time, under (my father’s) direction, copying those photos and learning how to draw realistically,” she said.
Richardson’s parents provided crucial support throughout her childhood, enrolling her in summer art programs and making sure she had art classes in school.
She attended Milwaukee High School for the Arts as well as a school in Kenosha County.
Then Richardson enrolled in three colleges in roughly five years as she tried to choose one of several art or design-related career paths. After time at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and the University of Wisconsin-Stout, she transferred to Milwaukee Area Technical College.
“I didn’t really want to devote four years to one thing in an area where I had so many interests,” she said. “I loved all of them and I couldn’t pick.”
The technical skills Richardson learned in her graphic design major at MATC are still useful today as she creates her murals, she said.
And her experiences dabbling in different fields gave her a chance to learn more about herself — a lesson she’d repeat as her career took unexpected turns.
“I was still trying to figure out who I was,” she said.
After two years post-college working at a small printing company, the business was purchased by a bigger company. Richardson found herself laid off and unable to find full-time graphic design work.
Thinking about creative ways to use her skills, Richardson started sending out proposals to be an artist-in-residence at schools. With no formal background in art teaching, she figured she could work with students to design and paint murals.
The plan worked. At first, she had a handful of six- to eight-week residencies a year. As her reputation grew, she got busier.
She developed the method she still uses today for community-based projects: Brainstorm ideas, create a design, trace it onto a wall and let kids paint it in, like paint-by-numbers art.
At first, she was getting requests for mural themes she didn’t find very interesting, such as Wisconsin’s natural resources. But she gained appreciation for the work, and for the opportunities that would come up after each completed project.
“All of those projects, one after the other, were stepping stones,” she said.
“I was only taking things as they came,” Richardson said. “Sometimes things would come that weren’t that appealing or interesting to me on the surface, and I would do the best that I could with it and give it my all, and that would lead to the next thing, and doors would open.”
By 2014, Richardson became a full-time mural artist — something she’d never envisioned doing when she was struggling to pick out a major back in college.
“All of this is a journey from something maybe not ending up being what I thought it was, or running out of options, and then adapting,” she said. “It turns out I fell in love with community art through the artist residencies. And I had to get laid off to discover that.”
Finding her niche
After years working in schools, Richardson met a fellow artist who had helped communities around the world create art of their own. It was a way for people who faced traumas such as war to process their emotions. That concept aligned with Richardson’s interests, and put her on a new path.
She transitioned away from schools and toward larger projects that involved community members of all ages.
“I started to see: This is where my path is leading me. And I felt that I wanted to take it on full-on,” Richardson said. “This is what I want to do.”
Richardson saw the appeal of involving a group of people in a big project they could accomplish together. She knew the power it had with her students, and she thought adults could also benefit from it.
“Going from, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I can’t draw’ to, ‘Look what we did’ and being excited and enthusiastic — I wanted to see that in the community with older people as well,” she said.
People need outlets to express themselves, Richardson believes, especially those who are facing challenges.
“From my experience, there isn’t a lot of opportunity for them to participate in something bigger than themselves,” Richardson said.
In recent years she has involved Milwaukee County employees in designing a courthouse mural as well as teens at the Milwaukee Christian Center.
And after a church in Rockford, Illinois, commissioned a mural, Richardson raised $30,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to complete it with the help of 200 residents.
The process of creating “Rockford Taking Flight” has been made it into a short film, to be released soon.
Some murals do not involve the community at large, such as “Bridging Milwaukee’s Heart,” painted on the columns that hold up Interstate 794 in the Third Ward, and her new work on Locust Street, which will feature elephants and children in its design.
Richardson is often moved, she said, by the projects that do involve others.
Many of the issues in society stem from a lack of willingness to work together, Richardson believes. Art can break down those barriers.
“I want to help people push past their limitations. I want to create a way where people feel like they want to work together,” she said.
Along with bridging divides between people, the process of designing the murals as a community helps those involved imagine a better future for themselves.
Many of the murals created with the community’s input depict their current struggles and their visions of hope.
“For them, it’s very uplifting. It gives them a chance to share what’s meaningful for them, and how they want to see their community get better, and what does ‘better’ actually look like,” Richardson said.
With each new project, Richardson’s motivation for her work grows. After so many twists and turns along the way, she feels assured she’s on the right path.
“When I see their reactions, that’s enough for me to want to keep doing it, and do it as much as I can, as many places as I can, with whoever I can, and include as many people as I can,” she said.
About this feature
Each week, we’ll be profiling difference-makers in our community. Some may be newsmakers; some may be unsung heroes. We’ll talk to about their motivations and their life journey, and in the process weave a portrait about what it’s like to live in this place, at this time. If you have suggestions for subjects, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.