Art in some unlikely spots in downtown Eaton Rapids
Eaton Rapids — On a recent Wednesday morning Dan Wiles lay on the ground in the 100 block of Mill Street, working on his side just a few feet from the rushing water of the Grand River.
The sleeves of his blue fleece jacket were pushed back to his elbows, his face inches from the most unlikely of canvases – a concrete cistern jutting up a few feet off the ground at Eaton Rapids’ Mill Pointe Park.
A manhole on top of it offers access for city workers to the sanitary sewer that runs under the Grand River.
The ground was still damp from the week’s nearly-constant rainfall, and Wiles shifted his weight while a tiny spider scurried across the detailed scene he was creating on one side of the structure, a painting of the water wheel that once turned on the river nearby.
Wiles, 48, ignored the insect. He got to the park just after 7 a.m., intent on taking advantage of the clear skies
“Thank goodness I’m ambidextrous, because my sides get tired,” Wiles told the Lansing State Journal, as he took a paint brush and filled in the outline of a sketch.
When it’s finished, his mural will travel around the cistern showcasing five scenes, including one of a mallard, it’s body seemingly reflecting off the water it sits on, and a turtle climbing a tree branch.
Wiles’ creation isn’t the first piece of public art to pop up in downtown Eaton Rapids this year, and it won’t be the last.
Rather it’s one of several local projects in the works aimed at bringing more outdoor artwork to the small Eaton County community.
Later this month long strings of multi-colored LED light bars will be mounted to the side of the State Street Bridge that crosses over the Grand River, just south of downtown Eaton Rapids.
The lights cost $5,000 and were paid for, in part, by a grant from the Arts Council of Greater Lansing.
Visitors to Eaton Rapids’ Island Park will be able to see them after dark, Paul Malewski, the city’s mayor, said and city officials will be able to change the colors seasonally.
And while the lights may become the city’s most noticeable artistic project yet, Malewski said a community-wide effort to promote public art projects, big and small, has been underway for more than a year now.
Art makes a community “a more enjoyable place to live,” he said, and exterior building walls, sidewalks and yes, even concrete cisterns can be blank canvases to create it.
Danielle Raad agrees.
She’s a local artist who sits on the Eaton Rapids Arts Council and who this summer painted her own creation on a city sidewalk just a few hundred yards away from Wiles’ work space.
Her colorful Koi fish can be found swimming along next to a bench near Eaton Rapids Craft Co., a nearby restaurant off Main Street.
Raad, 34, started working on the fish in August, sitting on the ground while she worked amid curious passersby and the occasional duck that wandered past.
“My biggest problem was the ducks, keeping them off the wet paint,” Raad said.
She calls the creation “whimsical” and said she still has designs to expand on it.
City officials encouraged the creation, Raad said, because they understand the value it adds to downtown.
“I think by adding art it helps the community,” she said. “It adds a lot of town pride, which is kind of priceless, right?”
Even residents who don’t consider themselves artists have had the opportunity to be part of the public art push.
They’ve purchased tiles at Your Creative Escape, a local pottery painting shop, and decorated them. The finished pieces adorn planters on display at Eaton Rapids City Hall and at the amphitheater near downtown.
More than 100 tiles have been purchased so far, Malewski said.
A future art project focused on showcasing arguably the city’s greatest asset – the Grand River – is in the works too.
The concept, Malewski said, is to bring local artists together to create a massive mural along the Grand River through downtown Eaton Rapids.
Portions of the mural would continue along the backs of downtown buildings facing the water, he said, and city officials have already secured permission from property owners.
The finished work would create an eye-catching view of the community for those traveling the Grand River on kayaks, Malewski said.
“We want to have people see the downtown from the river as apposed to seeing the river from downtown.”
Both Wiles and Raad are donating their time to create their outdoor art, and both say they are interested in helping with the river mural.
“I think this is kind of a window of opportunity for all of us to come together and make it happen,” Raad said.
“This town has been good to my family,” Wiles said “We’ve been welcomed. This is just my gift back to the city.”
Wiles has already clocked at least 40 hours worth of work on the cistern mural. He has yet to create a kayaking scene with four people that will fill a remaining section of the cistern that faces the water. There’s little room to lay down in front of that section, so Wiles plans to paint that section on his knees.
“Again, it’s a little bit tricky,” Wiles said.
The work could take him until next spring to finish.
“I know it might not last,” Wiles said. “It might get damaged. It might get vandalized, but I do it for the same reason that people build sandcastles that get washed away. We get to enjoy it.”