The American Mural Project (AMP) is a giant endeavor located in a small town.
Twenty-two years in the making, the multimillion-dollar project is the world’s largest indoor collaborative artwork at five stories high and 120 feet long. The project is a tribute to working people in the United States and encompasses a flourishing educational program for kids and an event venue for live music and galas.
So why is this massive undertaking located in Winsted, Connecticut, population 7,300, in the rural northwest corner of the state?
It is a question that artist and the AMP visionary Ellen Griesedieck gets a lot.
The way she sees it, Winsted’s history provides a rich context for the mission of the AMP. The town was part of a web of manufacturing hubs in New England and epitomizes the long tradition of a strong work ethic in America.
It also has an abundance of the type of buildings Griesedieck was determined to use for the project: a historic brick mill building. The structures are big enough to hold such a large installation. AMP’s two structures housed a knitting and woolen mill that crafted uniforms for the Civil War. Even more, “These old mill buildings are our American cathedrals,” she said. “They are the most beautiful buildings in the country.”
The off-the-beaten-path location also sets the project apart as the singular creation that it is. Visitors have to make a pilgrimage to see it, driving 45 minutes from Hartford, Connecticut, and two hours from New York City. “It is a mural about real people, located in a very real place,” she said.
AMP sees itself as a part of that real place. There is a space in the organization’s newsletter for community building that shares events and happenings in their northwest Connecticut neighborhood. One month, readers were invited to hike nearby Land Conservancy trails, another to attend the youth ski jumping event in Salisbury, and another to visit local open artist studios.
The mural is currently being installed. That and the pandemic means it isn’t yet drawing crowds of visitors or students flocking to educational programs.
But according to Winsted Town Manager Bob Geiger, it is already making a difference in the community. The town experienced the demise of manufacturing in the 1900s like many other American towns. Then the Mad River, which runs through Winsted, flooded in the 1950s and destroyed half of the buildings in one fell swoop.
Geiger said the town is now regaining its footing. Other old mills have been renovated to house apartments, artist studios, and a brewery. The community college and hospital are both in the midst of construction projects. Restaurants are opening, and there is talk of a new hotel. “Each one spurs the next piece of development,” he said. “There is the beginning of a resurgence underway.” One foundational piece of that resurgence is the American Mural Project.
But the AMP has made a difference beyond economics. The flourishing educational programs have included after school care and summer day camps for local kids. Then there is the intangible contribution of having this big of a project in their town. “Having AMP is a huge emotional push,” Geiger said. “People see something beautiful coming to a grungy mill town. It is a big piece of hope for us.”
Frankly, the rural location is just one of the improbable parts of the American Mural Project. A giant three-dimensional mural celebrating working people that includes collaborative contributions from kids in all 50 states? Accompanied by an inspiring educational program that sparks possibility?
Improbable, that is until you meet Ellen Griesedieck. It is the manifestation of her singular vision. With her Pollyanna spirit of possibility, she has gathered a cadre of supporters around her: steelworkers, politicians, women’s clubs, teachers. She has articulated and remained true to the project’s foundational values through the decades of development.
One of those intrinsic values is inclusive collaboration. Over 40,000 adults and children from all 50 states are expected to help finish the project, many in the designated state projects. Involving kids is a tool for inspiring them about occupations and their own possibilities. Through cooperation, they create something bigger than they would have alone.
For example, a class of middle school students created a 22-foot sculpture of an ax out of recycled timber recovered from the bottom of Lake Superior for the Wisconsin part of the project. Led by salvage expert Scott Mitchen, they learned about reusing the world’s resources and created a piece to represent the national history of forestry, logging, and timber industries.
The American Mural Project shows people the possibilities when they dream big and work together and serves as an inspiration, a celebration, and a challenge. “We like to say it is the Mount Rushmore for the rest of us,” said Griesedieck.
Find out more about virtual education programs, occasional open mill days, and the on-going installation of the mural at www.americanmuralproject.org.