Bringing Color to a Wall Near You

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Erik Schlake's mural of Louis Armstrong

at McCollum Hall

“We offer high school and college internships and many students

work directly with our professionals,

and that is experience you cannot buy.”

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Mel Meo's mural at The Butterfly Estates.

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Roland Ruocco's mural at McCollum Hall.

“The Fort Myers Mural Society creates murals to boost tourism,

spur economic improvement

and increase walkability

throughout Southwest Florida neighborhoods and communities.”

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Erik Schlake's mural at McCollum Hall

& Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

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Erik Schlake's mural at McCollum Hall

by Gary Mooney

 

WHEN PEOPLE FIRST LEARN about the Fort Myers Mural Society (FMMS), they think we are just an artistic organization,” explained FMMS Founder & Director Shari Shifrin, who owns Grand Illusion Creative Resources in Downtown Fort Myers. “The truth is that the Fort Myers Mural Society creates murals to boost tourism, spur economic improvement, and increase walkability throughout Southwest Florida neighborhoods and communities.” 

 

She adds, “We work with stakeholders to learn the history, environment, and culture of their area to ensure that the mural captures their special flavor. Communities all over are creating murals to promote tourism and enhance economic impacts, meaning you now can find public art in almost every United States municipality. The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau is our biggest sponsor and we received four of their marketing grants to promote our mission of what makes Southwest Florida unique from other parts of the country.”

 

Inauspicious Beginning

The Fort Myers Mural Society formed in 2013 from an inauspicious beginning. “We started because I received a fine for painting a mural,” expains Shari, laughing at the recollection. “The City of Fort Myers fined me because I did not know there was a City ordinance against mural painting. So I spent the next two years negotiating with Fort Myers City Council over the benefits, including financially, of what public art like murals brings to a community, doing so three minutes at a time in ‘Public Comment.’ In 2015, the City Council finally amended the ordinance to allow murals.”

The Fort Myers Historic Preservation Commission works with the FMMS “to create murals to let people know about our performing arts, culture and history,” says Shari, “so we do not lose that precious link to the past while creating visual interpretations about earlier eras that initially brought people and tourism to Southwest Florida. For example, the FMMS did the huge McCollum Hall murals on Martin Luther King Junior Blvd. The Travel Channel recently filmed a segment on McCollum Hall, as even many longtime Fort Myers residents don’t know that as far back as the 1940s, McCollum Hall was a regular stop on what was known as the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ for African-American musicians and performers, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Not many Southern communities can claim that distinction.”   

Another recent FMMS mural is a tribute to the late local DJ Griff Gotti, whose real name was Conrad Buchanan. “DJ Griff, who passed away in March 2020 from Covid-19, was one of the first and youngest Lee County victims of the pandemic,” Shari offered. “DJ Griff was an important part of the Downtown Fort Myers fabric. He was a terrific representative of our local culture and it was important to us all that his memory did not fade away, so when you walk past his mural, your reaction is, ‘Wow!,’ as it really captures his zest for life as well as the Downtown vibe. As DJ Griff was African-American, his mural demonstrates to visitors that Fort Myers is a multicultural community, with blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics in what on the surface seems like an overwhelmingly older white community, as it is that diversity that molded our community in the past through today.”

Shari emphasized that FMMS works expand well past the Downtown Fort Myers neighborhood. “We have, for instance, many terrific murals on Fort Myers Beach. To learn all our Southwest Florida mural locations with pictorial and literal descriptions, check out our upcoming new and free app, Art Stumble, that should launch in January. The more people who can access our current murals through Art Stumble, the more interest it will generate toward creating more murals!”

Painting a mural enhances an artist’s reputation, explains Shari, “because of the high profile locations where so many people see them, like restaurants, bars, businesses and even people’s houses. In fact, finding a businessowner or neighborhood association that wants to commission a mural is easy; the hard part is often working with and through the various local governments, as their red tape can take all the fun out of it! Once someone contacts the FMMS about a potential project, we put out a call to our artist members to see who is available, as murals are an excellent way for them to create more work for themselves.” She adds, “Our artists never paint for free, with many of our projects receiving financial support from private funding or grants.”

Broadening Artistic Horizons

She explains that there is no specific mural size, “They can be as small as a utility box while the McCollum Hall murals are 8 feet high and several hundred feet long. Murals can be on a building, fence, wall, or many other surfaces and they all qualify as public art, but the one thing they cannot be is a sign! Many communities have ordinances that differentiate between murals and signs, but the simplest difference is murals do not carry advertisements. So if you see one promoting a store, for example, that is a sign.”

As for what makes a perfect mural ‘canvas?’ “Anything,” she exclaims. “Our artists are great at adapting to any surface; if it is stucco, we fill it in, and for bricks and other types, we use mural cloths, and we know the proper paint for every surface. Each FMMS artist is a professional, with many of us having Master’s Degrees in Fine Arts.”

 

Once the Fort Myers Mural Society completes a mural, their work is not done. “Part of our responsibility is upkeep,” Shari related. “Year-round residents know how torrid our sun and rain are during the summer so we return every few years to refurbish it. An aspect of our original work is placing a thick SPF coating on the mural so it stays vibrant as long as possible, with many as bright today as when we painted them six years ago.” She adds, “As an aside, Southwest Florida mural painting season is just now underway, from December through May, as summers here are a hot and wet pain.”

An important FMMS component is its work with children, teenagers, and art students. “We partnered with the Florida SouthWestern State College Honor Society on the Music Legends project and the High School National Art Honor Society for a Halloween project,” Shari says. “We offer high school and college internships and many students work directly with our local professionals, and that is experience you cannot buy. The professional artist never criticizes or judges the student but offers advice, explains techniques, and serves as a role model, as experience is a crucial component to a student eventually morphing into a professional artist.” 

Another thing the FMMS does, for professionals and students, is offering art mural painting conferences outside our area as well as bringing artists from other regions here through a mural exchange program to discuss their art and techniques. “They come to us and we go to their place,” explains Shari. “In this way, those artists mentor our entire organization, because how you paint a mural in New York, Philadelphia or Connecticut is vastly different than in Southwest Florida due to factors like weather and surface conditions. When you learn how to paint properly in faraway places, that really broadens your artistic horizons.”

 

We Are Alive Here!

The Fort Myers Mural Society is a non-profit 501c3 organization whose objectives include revitalization, preservation, and economic enhancement of Southwest Florida through the painting of murals that showcase our rich history. 

“It is easy to become a FMMS member,” Shari explains. “You can go to our website and become a member for an annual $25 fee. Once you become a member, you receive artist opportunity calls for upcoming projects as well as information on our recent activities. We currently have 37 artists and roughly 500 patron members, and are always looking for more people to become a permanent part of our lasting legacy!” 

Shari shared that the FMMS has a simple goal for its future: “To expand beyond the communities where we already have a significant profile. We recently finished an Alva Community Center mural that really captures that region. To spread the word about the FMMS, we participate in live painting events and chalk festivals and auction off pieces at charity functions. The bottom line is that our final product is not about the FMMS but the murals, to enhance the community in which we live while improving the economy and visitor experience.”

 

There is a simple reason why murals appeal to art lovers and the general public alike, claims Shari. “They are larger than life! Murals are bigger than we are, carry a huge impact and do not require much interpretation. They improve the mood of everybody who views them because they are bright and colorful and reflect the culture, history, and environment of your neighborhood. A mural screams out, ‘We are alive here!’ We emphasize to perspective mural sponsors that the FMMS brings color to your world!”  •

For information about the Fort Myers Mural Society, call 461-7245.

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January/February 2022