The UW South Madison Partnership on South Park Street is home to several nonprofit organizations – Madison365 among them – as well as the University of Wisconsin’s Odyssey Project, the Neighborhood Law Clinic, financial literacy classes, self-care classes and many other Community Engagement programs.
And now it reflects its community connection more than the average office building, thanks to bright and vibrant murals designed by community artist Lilada Gee and painted by community members, alongside recently-installed photos by Hedi Lamarr Rudd.
“I was really excited to get picked to do this project because I’m both a UW grad and a product of the south side of Madison,” Gee said. “And oftentimes, entities come into our community, but they don’t include us. So the ability to be able to include images of people of color in this space is just a joy for me.”
The murals, spread throughout the space in the reception area, atrium, hallways and daycare room, are designed in Gee’s signature style, and not only represent the community but the specific people in it.
“I think what really gets lost in community is that we are built of individuals. Individual experiences, individual needs,” she said. “And that’s one thing I want to have reflected in this project is that let’s not forget that each individual person in the community has an expression, has a need.”
To that end, the faces are modeled on those of Odyssey Project graduates and other community members. One is even modeled on Rudd.
“I think it’s very powerful and important,” said Brenda Gonzalez, UW director of community relations. “What we hear very often from many people that visit our space is that we needed a little bit more homey, more welcoming features, and art that will feel like we’re here in community and welcoming community as well.”
The space was buzzing Thursday with a cadre of painters filling in the murals in vibrant colors donated by PPG Industries, a company that manufactures paint and other coatings.
“The PPG concept was to do kind of like a paint by number, which is super fun, but really different as an artist to kind of almost like turn my babies over to somebody else,” Gee said.
Many of those painting Thursday were people of color from UW, like computational chemist Desiree Bates.
“I think it’s important for kids to see color and people of color in everyday lives,” Bates said. “And so this is a really good way to promote women of color artists while still making and normalizing all different nationalities, in art and in everyday lives.”
“You just get the urge to help,” said Shannon Brown, a graduate student in the Chemistry Department and the Bridge Program. “People are also helping me. And so if I continue this cycle, then it’s only fair.”
Gee said she also appreciated white folks chipping in.
“I’m hoping that appreciation of the beauty and the strength of these women is being seen through their eyes as they’re kind of having that hands-on experience of bringing them to life,” she said.
Gee’s journey to becoming a well-known community artist has been a quick one. After decades of leading nonprofits dedicated to helping Black women and girls through trauma, she just started publicly sharing digital artwork in 2018.
Just a few years later, she’s an in-demand artist around the area.
“I feel deep gratitude. And I feel it’s been God’s blessings,” she said. “Art is something that I did as a child when I was going through trauma. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was something that helped to sustain me during that difficult time. And then later in life, I didn’t think art was something that I could do as a job. Later in life, art came back to me as I was doing trauma work with kids, and I needed something to help kind of help me work through those feelings, how you leave it at the end of the day. And so I started doing art again. And so I really credit the young girls that I work with, who shared their stories and experiences with me, who brought me full circle back to art as a healer.”
Gee credits the State Street mural project – when the City of Madison invited artists to beautify the boarded-up storefronts following Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 – with taking her work “to the next level.”
“I was initially doing this digital art, and when (City of Madison Arts Program Administrator) Karin Wolff called me from the city to see if I would do a mural, I said yeah, but I didn’t own a can of paint. I didn’t own a brush. I probably hadn’t physically painted since I was in middle school. But I knew I was supposed to say yes,” Gee said. “I want to encourage people, young folks in particular, say yeah to things that you don’t feel perfect at, and just keep doing it. Keep doing it. And I learned so much from the young artists that I work with down on State Street, and so now I’m here and it’s a blessing. That’s all I can say.”
Gee’s murals and Rudd’s photos can both be seen during business hours and most weekends at the UW South Madison Partners, 2236 South Park Street in Madison.