WLD Exclusive: U-M Museum of Natural History’s new mural tells the story of the Huron River Watershed

With cutting-edge science happening on site, ancient artifacts from around the world, state of the art craftsmanship, and the most advanced technology available to man on full display, the University of Michigan’s new Museum of Natural History easily establishes itself as an education center with global outreach and influence.

Being mindful of its home, the museum’s organizers wanted to pay homage to the habitat it shares by installing a large-scale indoor mural of the Huron River Watershed in the lower level community room. They looked no further when Ann Arbor’s own Treetown Murals responded to their RFP (request for proposal).

“They had an RFP that we applied for and we were selected through the process,” said Treetown Murals founder Mary Thiefels. “The feedback that I was given was that our company (who she runs with her husband, artist Danijel Matanic) stood out because of the community engagement component.”

Indeed, Treetown Murals is known for inviting the public to be part of their works and museum organizers wanted to incorporate that into the mural.

“One of the cool things about creating this with Mary is she uses a method she calls paint-by-number, where the underlayment is painted by the community,” said Capital Projects Manager Lynne Friman.

Thiefels explains how their process worked for the museum:

“We created an entire weekend where members could sign up for slots. We originally drew the design out in a very simplified manner creating a paint-by-number platform. We have 10 colors and about 500 shapes, kind of organic shapes, that made up the basic larger compositional elements of the mural, so over the course of three days in a very organized way they had groups of their members and family and kids coming through and everybody got a chance to paint part of the mural at that stage, and so that to us is actually building the painting from a really neat collaborative lens. All of those unique individuals will have helped create the mural.”

For Thiefels having a Treetown mural installed at the Museum of Natural History connects their work more pointedly with the history of murals as the most primal artistic expression on the planet.

“Think about it,” she says. “The birthplace of human creation is painting on walls. You know, when you think about the petroglyphs and our desire to say ‘we’re here’ or to document what we’re seeing using materials very primitive all the way till now, so I really think of it as a human instinct in some way to want to leave your mark and tell a story.”

And who better to tell the story of the Huron River Watershed than a long-time community leader and educator. Thiefels not only made her bones as a volunteer muralist over twenty-three years ago painting underpasses in Ann Arbor, but she also serves as the visual media arts manager at the Neutral Zone, Ann Arbor’s regionally recognized avantgarde teen center.

“The mural was painted for young people in a lot of ways,” Thiefels says, “and hopefully it will inspire them to want to take care of this beautiful garden of our planet and allow for animals to thrive and not go extinct, and to create habitats for birds to migrate to, and things that we take for granted – that nature does what it does instinctively and we need to support it and not do the opposite.”

The mural has already been incorporated into the museum’s interactive model with seek and find games designed for nature education and species identification.

“We have seek and find items to look for all over the mural to see what you can find,” says Friman, “and that continues to be one of our ‘surprise and delight’ initiatives as we call them.”

The mural was designed in cooperation with scientific expertise.

“We were put in touch with scientists, naturalists and biologists that are familiar with the area,” Thiefels said. “Even the mastodon that we painted in the ground, we looked at 3D renderings of the actual mastodon skulls that are in the collection of the museum; and certainly all of the native plants that you would find along the river, so everything was checked and double-checked and reviewed by a really collaborative team on U of M’s end.”

Designed as a composite, the mural presents an environment lush with life as an ideal habitat where we are living harmoniously with nature.

“It’s also a view of what our watershed could look like in a well-maintained healthy thriving kind of way,” Thiefels says, “and what scares me is that our Huron River, which is such a gem, is actually struggling right now in a lot of ways, and certainly the water quality is not great, and some of the invasive species that are coming in. . . and the watersheds themselves with pollution and whatnot, so there is a ton of awareness and conservancy that is hopefully built in because what you’re looking at in that mural is the best-case scenario.”

Pictures can only say so much about a work of art as large and detailed as the mural of the Huron River Watershed, but when looking at the mural up close, the tenderness Thiefels has for the critters is immediately contagious.

“Every time I paint an animal or a creature, I’m always just blown away by the intricacy of it, you know?  When you really start studying it . . .  and staring at it . . .  it’s just . . .  beautiful.”

The mural will have plenty of engagement in its home along with all the other wonders of the museum.

“The community room is a place where we invite people in for various purposes,” says Friman, “not least of which is school group lunches, events, birthday parties and summer camp.”

Photography by  Doug Coombe & Hilary Nichols (granted with permission by Mary Thiefels)


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