by Allyson Smith
Amid the concrete and tall buildings of the city of Akron, pockets of color, design, and beauty can be found. Many of these spaces, such as the walls of Musica and Crave, the Downtown Laundromat, and the Barberton Library have been transformed from drab brick and concrete to iconic works of art that serve as landmarks and an identity for the neighborhoods in which they are painted.
The University of Akron’s Art Bomb Brigade (ABB), co-directed by Marissa McClellan and Elisa Gargarella, is on a mission to beautify Akron, make the city a better place to live, and inspire others — all while teaching students in the Myers School of Art what it’s like to create artwork professionally.
Art Bomb Brigade began three years ago when Marissa and Elisa wanted to get Myers students involved in the Knight Arts Challenge.
“We came up with the opportunity for our students to become thought leaders and create public art, which we found to be a huge need for in this community where there’s not a lot of eye candy or brightness. We certainly have a lot of concrete,” Elisa says.
The Art Bomb Brigade went on to become a full-semester course at UA. According to Marissa and Elisa, “it’s not just show up and paint like everybody thinks!”
The co-directors and their students spend 15 weeks researching, designing, learning how to pitch to and work with clients, and planning the murals. It’s not until the semester is finished that they spend about two weeks painting. Students also learn troubleshooting, problem solving, and site logistics.
“The coolest part of Art Bomb Brigade is that we are an education program, so the whole basis is teaching students at Myers or the university how to do what we do so that they can continue it on after we’re done. The benefit of it is public art. The basis of it is an education program, but also you get a mural, so that’s pretty cool,” says Marissa.
While the basis of the program may be education, the benefits of their work in communities and the city shouldn’t be underestimated.
“I think that if you have public art, other things happen. It makes a place that maybe once didn’t feel inviting or welcome, and I think that it ignites or inspires other people to take action and create another public space there,” says Marissa. “Like, there’s some public art here so maybe we’ll have a Farm and Flea here now because there’s this beautiful backdrop. Or I’m not gonna throw litter or trash this place.”
Elisa says, “it’s contagious”.
According to Elisa, ABB tries to create artwork in places that could use revitalization. “It’s a positive growth in terms of beauty, safety, joy, economy… all those things come if you plant that art seed.”
The Art Bomb Brigade wants to help Akron and its neighborhoods build their own identities through their murals and public art. The clients and organizations they work with help direct the vision for the art so each piece is unique to its site.
“If you think about the top-visited spaces in cities, they have a couple things in common: great public art, food, and entertainment. And we felt that Akron has a couple of those things, but if we could elevate the art thing, we’d love for it to be both a destination [and] a place people want to live,” Elisa says.
Not only does Art Bomb Brigade teach students and create awesome public art, they also like to throw parties.
For the past two years, they have raised money for materials and equipment through Flannel Fest, which is a party consisting of beards, flannels (of course), and rock ‘n’ roll. It differs from the cheese-and-wine parties that Elisa and Marissa have so often attended as artists, but they feel it better reflects ABB and Akron.
They also throw parties for the completion of each mural.
“We always want to throw a party that’s a little rough around the edges and is really inclusive because our murals are for the masses. We believe they’re a little more democratic than art that’s maybe held in a gallery. They’re public, so they become owned by the people who live there, work there, visit there,” said Elisa.
Elisa and Marissa have many ideas about how to enhance the student experience while covering Akron’s walls and buildings in art, including art residencies and a possible apprenticeship.
The Art Bomb Brigade “has legs,” they say. “It’s not going anywhere.”
Art Bomb Brigade plans to paint murals in Middlebury, Kenmore, at Bounce Innovation Hub, and at St. Vincent- St. Mary High School.
“Everyone wants public art, and we want to give it to them,” Marissa says.
Allyson’s background is in media production and anthropology. Her hobbies include coffee, traveling, and teaching people about things they didn’t know before.