Local muralists paint the cancer center parking deck

FEEL BETTER: “Studies show that blood flow increased 10 percent [due] to the ‘joy response' part of the brain when participants viewed beautiful art,” says Marika Loveless, the executive director of the Mission Cancer Program. A group of local muralists — including Jen Toledo and Ian Wilkinson, pictured in front of a mural Wilkinson painted at the cancer center last year — will paint the center’s parking deck over two weekends in August. Photo by Cindy Kunst

A colorful painting, viewed from a parking space, might seem like small comfort when measured against the daunting prospect of radiation and other cancer therapies. But it’s not without quantifiable healing merits: “Imaginative murals offer a comforting distraction from stressful cancer center visits and treatment,” says Marika Loveless, the executive director of the Mission Cancer Program. “Studies show that blood flow increased 10 percent [due] to the ‘joy response’ part of the brain when participants viewed beautiful art — just like when you look at a loved one.”

Local painter Ian Wilkinson didn’t necessarily know that statistic when he set out to get the go-ahead from the hospital and gather a team to create a mural in the cancer center’s parking deck. “We want it to be beautiful and uplifting and make people smile,” he says. “If we can get one person to crack a smile on their way into treatment, then we’ve done our job.”

Wilkinson and other muralists will transform the parking deck over two weekends this month. “Doctors, patients and members of the public are invited to participate in a collaborative mural wall” on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25 and 26, according to a press release.

The project came about because Wilkinson won a bid last year to paint a mural inside the cancer center, as part of a makeover of a green space. But the parking area, from which patients enter, “is dismal,” Wilkinson points out. “I told the director of oncology, ‘We could paint this whole thing.’” And after some discussion and planning, Wilkinson — who is the director of the Asheville Mural Project and known for such public art as “Day Dreamer” on the Aloft Hotel and the chessboard on the I-240 underpass (where Broadway becomes Merrimon Avenue), among dozens of others — secured permission to adorn 20,000 square feet of wall space.

The project happened to fit with another public art initiative that Wilkinson is part of: Burners and BBQ. That effort, which took place annually 2014-17, produced collaborative street art in the River Arts District. “I wanted the muralists [in Asheville] to see how connected … and much camaraderie was involved the graffiti community,” Wilkinson says. “The muralists here were just lone-wolfing it.” After establishing trust with the graffiti artists, he was able to bring mural painters into Burners and BBQ in its third year.

This year, Burners and BBQ is on hiatus, so Wilkinson has invited those muralists and other local artists to take part in the cancer center parking deck project. At press time, 19 painters had signed on, including Jen Toledo, Gus Cutty, Dustin Spagnola, Kathryn Crawford, Maxx Hawthorn-feist, Ian Brownlee, Peter Parpan and Nathanael Roney.

“What I do most of the year is oil painting and pen-and-ink drawing,” says Toledo, who came on board to facilitate the project when Wilkinson realized he needed assistance. “The mural thing, they included me in that, and I was really grateful because it opened a door to that world. I realized I really enjoy working outside and working collaboratively with other artists.”

Teams of muralists will implement a design concept that Wilkinson describes as “stuff that is hopeful, stuff from the natural world, colorful pattern work.” Nothing harsh, stressful or objectionable.

“The mural will help transform the garage into a welcoming and friendly environment,” Loveless says of the idea. “It can help bring a happy association with the cancer center and bring a smile to [patients’] faces. It also can give an optimistic and healing backdrop.”

But this really is a case of teamwork making the dream work. “We’re trying to get people to collaborate and work together so this piece can be one big piece that makes sense rather than 20 different little murals,” Toledo explains. The group-effort approach has received positive response: “I think this is a welcome thing for most people, to have company while you’re working and to share ideas.”

Loveless adds, “My hope is that the Asheville community and Mission Hospital will experience a sense of teamwork as we join together to create this wonderful mural for our cancer survivors.”

Though the hospital has contributed funds to the effort, Wilkinson wants the project to be a gift. The artists are volunteering their time, and a GoFundMe campaign, aiming to raise $7,700 for supplies, was launched. Learn more and contribute at avl.mx/55y.

WHAT: Mural project
WHERE: First floor of the parking deck at Mission Cancer Center, 21 Hospital Drive
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25 and 26, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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