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Richard Wilson knew little about Monroe.
As he made the short drive south to the city from his home in Detroit for the first time, he recalled a mention of Monroe in a song by famed musician Gil Scott-Heron.
The 1977 song "We Almost Lost Detroit" references the 1966 Fermi 1 nuclear plant accident in Monroe that was, at the time, the worst nuclear accident in the country. The song was a prescient shot across the bow to the powers that be just two years before the far worse disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
Wilson has often used music to inspire his work as an artist. The reference to Monroe stuck in his mind as he searched for a way to feel the heartbeat of the community that would soon be home one of his murals carrying layers of intimate meaning.
That mural is part of Plntng Seeds, a public art initiative launched in 2022 by Woody Hoffer and Monroe County Opportunity Program Executive Director Stephanie Zorn Kasprzak as a way to both celebrate and inspire culture in a parched community.
Nowhere is the concept of Plntng Seeds spelled out more succinctly than in Wilson's newest mural outside on the northeast wall of the Arthur Lesow Community Center in Monroe's Orchard East neighborhood − a surreal image of a person planting themselves, as Wilson describes it.
"The idea was to talk about the grass being greenest where we water it, not on the 'other side' as we often seem to think," Wilson said. "That we can look at ourselves first for all the things we hope for in life."
The work is based on an oil painting on canvas that Wilson created in 2020. The painting featured a friend of Wilson's from his native London in the United Kingdom and was part of a series that he posted online last year for Earth Day. The concept of planting, nurturing, and personal growth jumped out to Hoffer who messaged Wilson to start a dialogue on the potential of bringing that idea to Monroe.
"It matched Plntng Seeds with the imagery that's represented in that piece and the relationship to the neighborhood with the (Selma Rankins) Community Gardens that are there," Hoffer said. "It's a representation of the community in which it exists. It is the perfect location for that piece."
Wilson made minor changes to the original oil painting, particularly in the colors he carefully chose to better match the building's brick motif. He said he sorted through the paint in his studio to find the proper palette, finally focusing on about five distinct colors that worked best together.
The mural features a woman in a tan bucket hat, light pink jacket, and a green shirt depicting an image of Gil Scott-Heron to connect with Monroe's history. She is seated on a royal purple pillow with her pants rolled up and her feet buried in the dirt up to her ankles. A few drops from a watering can nourish the ground around her legs.
In the background, a base of sky blue fades down into a rich clay red. Flowers painted in the same earthy tones add another layer of life and dimension. Wilson said he started without a concrete plan for the background and let the idea develop naturally as he worked.
"Just a matter of thinking about something that ties the image into the brickwork and makes sense with the image," he said. "In this case, some flowery shapes."
In many ways, the mural is a part of Wilson and his history as an artist, but he is careful to eschew his personal ties to the project. He rails against the thought of artists becoming too intertwined with the work that they create. Whatever any person who sees it may feel is good with him, Wilson said.
"I want the work to be first and foremost and, to some degree, the artist irrelevant," he added. "I repel against this more and more and become anti-artist. Artist talks, discussions of narrative and meaning, it’s not for me. I hope it’s an image people like. The majority of people won’t even see there is a watering can. Some will, it’s nice to reach those. But even if some don’t see a meaning, that’s also OK and fine."
Wilson admitted that his philosophy might take him away from the art world, making his mural in Monroe one of his final pieces in a decades-long career. He has painted 10 murals in total in places like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the UK, including an 8,000-square-foot depiction of Stevie Wonder in downtown Detroit outside the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts in 2019.
That mural garnered a rush of publicity and acclaim for Wilson, but his work in Monroe will always stand out regardless of where he's headed in the future.
"I was extremely grateful for this opportunity and feel like it’s one of if not perhaps my best work, especially in terms of the technical aspect and the image," Wilson said. "I really enjoyed painting it. So, perhaps a fitting way to bow out."
This article originally appeared on The Monroe News: Muralist Richard Wilson captures spirit of Plntng Seeds mission in Monroe