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New Mural ‘Future’ Depicts Black Dreams, Honors Late Community Leaders in Des Moines

by Black Iowa News| Dana James

New mural at the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families by visual artist Jill Wells dazzles and depicts Blacks as dreamers with bright futures.

While visual artist Jill Wells worked on a new mural at the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families, people in the community frequently sparked up conversations with her.

Artist Jill Wells at the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families. Photo by Black Iowa News.

They stood in awe at the towering Black figures — more than 20 feet tall — that dominate the sprawling, vibrant mural which has four sections, beginning with a young Black woman and older Black man having a conversation while they sit on a home’s front porch steps.

Who are they? What are they planning? Who does the home belong to? Those are among the themes Wells wants the public to ponder.

A man walking by the mural on his way to a nearby bus stop paused and told Wells: “‘I put words in the guy’s mouth. I think this is what he’s saying,’” she said.

The first section of "Future" while in progress on June 11. Photo by Black Iowa News.

That’s when Wells, 40, who graduated from Drake University in 2005 with a degree in fine arts, felt like she had hit the mark.

“I want people to start thinking about what they are talking about,” she said, of the pair on the porch. “I want them to think is there anything within me that I want to think about, that I want to dream about, that I want to talk about, that I want to consider as a possibility because that’s where I think art is functional; It’s not just aesthetic. It has a purpose in a person’s life.”

The Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines commissioned the mural, which is now a permanent fixture on the north side of the center. The mural is in memory of the late J. Barry Griswell, the foundation’s former CEO and the former chairman and CEO of Principal Financial Group. The center is named for the late Evelyn K. Davis, a Black civil rights leader who operated the beloved Tiny Tots Early Learning Center.

Wells’ mural contains several conversation starters. A recovery bracelet. A prosthetic device. A rainbow. And, plentiful foliage symbolizing themes of hope, renewal, revival — and the future. Her own story of perseverance is intertwined among the mural’s many messages.

One important theme is home ownership. The idea emerged after a conversation about redlining, or illegal housing discrimination that harmed Black neighborhoods, that Wells had with the center’s former director, she said. Nationally, Time reported 44.1% of Blacks own their homes, compared with 74.5% of whites. Iowa’s racial disparity in home ownership is much worse — just 23.4 percent of Blacks own their homes, compared with 74.2% of whites.

Wells has her own ideas about the conversation the pair is having.

“In my eyes, this is their home, and they’re talking about what’s next,” she said. “ And what’s next is the plan.”

Adjacent to that section, colorful sticky notes dot the wall and continue the concept of planning for the future.

Vibrant colors in the “Future” mural. Photo by Black Iowa News

Wells’ grandfather who she said raised her and whom she considers like a Dad, encouraged her to dream big, which is incorporated into the mural’s overarching vision.

She worked on the project with Marissa Hernandez, a designer, muralist and fellow Drake alumna who graduated in 2020, with a bachelor’s degree in painting. During April and May, Wells and Hernandez endured heat, cold and rain to develop the project from thoughts and drawings into fruition.

Visual artist and muralist Marissa Hernandez. Photo courtesy of Hernandez.

“It’s hard to believe that we once stood in front of a blank wall,” Hernandez, 23, said, in an email. “I’m so honored to have been asked to work on this project with Jill. The impact of the design and the story it tells is truly beautiful.”

The two met last year during a roundtable for artists assembled in response to the murder of George Floyd by a former Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020. Since Floyd’s killing, vibrant murals featuring Black, Indigenous and people of color have popped up all around Des Moines: “Martin,” one of Floyd and “Uplift Black Girls,” among others. A half a block north of Wells’ mural is one of civil rights icon John Lewis by visual artist Reuben Cheatem, which adorns a laundromat with two other murals.

“Seeing someone that looks like you being celebrated on a large scale is very affirming,” Hernandez said. “It’s a reminder that you are allowed to take up space and shows the world that this is who our community is — this is what we stand for.”

In a state where whites account for 90% of the population and Blacks make up 4%, being depicted as dreamers, homeowners, educators, and graduates who are planning for a bright, limitless future is meaningful to viewers who’ll find something of themselves in the mural, Wells said.

“Representation is a big piece for me,” said Wells, whose approach to the mural began with thinking about color and the science behind colors.

Hernandez, who said the mural sparks comfort, joy and awe, said people underestimate the impact of public art.

“Murals are such a great way to provide communities with representation, affirmations, acceptance and care,” she said. “They’re accessible to an incredibly large audience, an audience that can sometimes feel excluded from other more pretentious forms of art.”

Wells never met the community leaders represented in the mural, but she included elements of their lives. Since Griswell was nearly 7 feet-tall, Wells got the idea to depict his “commanding presence” as a one-on-one conversation, she said. With Davis, she incorporated children and early childhood education, she said.

“I would literally lay in bed and visualize what I would see on the wall. I knew I wanted one or two really large figures having some sort of dialogue at the beginning,” she said.

As her mind started to “pop in images,” she began drawing and adding in color.

A former residential substance abuse counselor for 5 years and a juvenile services counselor for three years, Wells knows one-on-one conversations can be life changing.

“It’s important to build that into my work — to tie emotion into it,” she said.

The mural depicts a joyful graduation scene. Photo by Black Iowa News.

In the graduate section, she used white and blue on the tassel and a blue robe to tie in Des Moines Area Community College, which is located just west of the center. A Mexican Sherpa, with yellow for mathematics and science, hangs around the graduate's neck. Many more symbols are waiting to be discovered.

Near the mural's title, the portrayal of a Black man wearing a tie is particularly meaningful to Wells. The center features the Men on the Move Career Closet which provides work attire for returning citizens and others.

“The tie is a big deal for me,” she said. “The dignity of a suit for a man — especially if they’re coming out of jail or prison — I wanted to have a conversation about all of these things.”

Towering figures in "Future" mural. Photo by Black Iowa News.

One of the last touches Wells painted as she wrapped up the project on June 24: a recovery bracelet.

“I built that in because it’s a part of our community. I feel like if someone does see that and they’re thinking about (whether) to hit a meeting, they’ll be like, ‘Ok, I’m going to go hit a meeting.’”

A prosthetic device. A recovery bracelet in the "Future" mural. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Wells will miss the connections she has made with the community members she got to know while painting the mural.

”Some of the same guys came by everyday,” she said.

Some of them likely were homeless or displaced, and she treasured her interactions with them, and said it will have an impact on her future work.

The center, which provides job development, financial literacy, educational and other services, was established in 2012 as a partnership between the foundation and DMACC and other groups.

A dedication ceremony is being planned for July 9, but the time has not yet been set, Wells said.

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