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Growing public art locally
The final mock-up of the mural to be painted on the back of the West Broad Street YMCA, which was designed by the YMCA kids and will be painted by Hebermehl and Ray.

ART COMMUNICATES. It informs. It inspires. It makes things visible. Public art, especially, brings light to previously unnoticed places.

Currently, Savannah is witnessing the creation of a once unimaginable number of public works. In the last two years, the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Planning Commission has green-lighted multiple murals proposed by SeeSAW (See Savannah Art Walls).

On July 10 the MPC approved two SeeSAW projects— a mural currently being painted by artist Kellie Walker at 66th and Paulsen, and a mural at the West Broad Street YMCA, in the Kayton-Frazier neighborhood west of MLK Jr. Boulevard.

While both works bring new light to their respective sites, the YMCA mural will have a profound impact on the neighborhood since it enhances the YMCA’s work— providing services, education, and building and bridging communities.

At the YMCA, Molly Lieberman, Creative Director of Loop It Up Savannah and YMCA Community Outreach Coordinator, has woven art into the way they accomplish their goals. Lieberman also is a project leader for the YMCA’s Growing Edge Community Garden, a part of a 14-agency partnership to increase access to healthy, affordable food, funded by a Gulfstream grant.

“The kids here really relate to art. Art is something that they do. So once you achieve that in one place, how do you get that to happen in another, like food or gardening? We need to use this enthusiasm the kids have for art to walk them into new things,” Lieberman said.

To help engage the kids, Lieberman transforms food and gardening into inspiration for artistic creation.

This has helped make fresh foods approachable. She said that one week the kids got “super into” salad. They asked for seconds. “They were excited about it because they knew where it was from.”

The YMCA is adding a greenhouse, expanding their kitchen, offering cooking classes, and a retrofitting a truck into a mobile food source that will travel to low-income neighborhoods selling their harvest at affordable prices.

The garden is behind the YMCA, next to the wall on which SeeSAW will paint the mural. Development of the mural began a year and half ago after SeeSAW secured funding from two foundations, The Left Tilt Fund and The Sunshine Polka-Dot Foundation, for two public art projects; the second is the 66th and Paulsen mural.

SeeSAW co-founder Matt Hebermehl approached then Executive Director of the W Broad Street YMCA, Peter Doliber. “He was interested in having something there that represented the community that supports and uses the YMCA as a resource,” Hebermehl said.

The mural design went through multiple iterations as the artists— Hebermehl, along with Jose Ray and, initially, Cleonique Hilsaca— tried to capture “the voice of the YMCA.” Hebermehl said, “We were trying to interpret it and we realized it wasn’t really our story to tell.”

Ray said, “We decided that it was better to have the kids more directly involved.”

Hebermehl, Ray, and Lieberman produced a series of workshops at the YMCA where 30 kids designed the mural.

“We gave them the prompt to draw what the YMCA meant to them; what the neighborhood meant to them, what their favorite activities were,” Hebermehl said. “We took the drawings, put them on the wall and the kids arranged the composition.”

The mural is slated to be complete by the end of August. Hebermehl and Ray will paint the final design. While the kids are not involved in the final execution, the goal is to “be as truthful as possible,” Ray said. “That’s the challenge; to keep our hand out of the mural and let them shine.”

Visible from MLK, it will extend a giant welcoming hand to the rest of Savannah.

“There are many levels of Savannah and many do not intersect. But I feel like having this over here, in some way, makes this a destination. That’s where really exciting social change comes in,” said Lieberman.

“I think good public art celebrates the space it is in,” Hebermehl said. “It brings people together and helps create a situation where people respect where they live and the people that they live with.”