By Mrinal Gokhale
Uihlein Architects has built about 20 buildings in the Milwaukee area. Only one of these commercial spaces has a giant, vibrant mural that celebrates womanhood, located at 3279 N. Richards St. in Harambee. The Victory Garden Initiative (VGI) bought and transformed this building into their office space in March 2018. The mural was officially unveiled during VGI’s Fifth Annual Farmraiser on Saturday, September 15.
VGI is a nonprofit organization that educates the community on how to grow food. VGI grows and donates their crops from the Concordia Gardens to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), allows people to rent their garden beds, and has programming that educates youth and adults on farming.
Starting at 4:00 p.m., many families, individuals, VGI employees and volunteers gathered in the Concordia Gardens. The crowd enjoyed music from DJ Lolo, spoken word from local poets, and a free buffet of pulled pork, goat curry, brats, chips, salsa, and salads, made by VGI and various local restaurants.
Around 5:00 p.m., Gretchen Mead, executive director of VGI, walked across the garden to the VGI building with a small group. Accompanying Mead was Stacey Williams-Ng, who painted the mural in June. Mead and Williams-Ng told the group about the mural and toured the inside of the building.
“After we moved into this building, I saw some beautiful murals on Facebook and made a status asking who can paint murals for our new space,” said Mead. “A number of people tagged Stacey.”
From there, Williams-Ng and Mead connected instantly, and the project progressed quickly.
“Gretchen and I had a wonderful melding of the minds over the phone,” Williams-Ng recalled. “I’ve done murals around the city and never heard of VGI until then.”
Williamns-Ng felt touched by VGI’s mission and agreed to paint the mural for free.
“I wouldn’t say that to most clients, but after reading about what she’s doing and growing food, it’s just such a moving thing. I mean, that’s life itself,” she said. “I’m a mother and love to cook, but I’ve never grown anything in my life.”
The mural covers the front and left sides, featuring a bright turquoise base and graphics made of green, red, purple, and brown hues. The front side has a portrait of a woman, with pea pods, tomatoes, and peppers on both sides. Williams-Ng said that the female portrait represents “Mother Earth.”
“I didn’t want to just paint fruits and vegetables, because I didn’t want it to look like a grocery store or an ad,” Williams-Ng said. “Gretchen and I discussed the deeper meaning of growing food, helping others, being a family, mealtime, and life itself, which really kept coming back to motherhood.”
Mead stated that this inspiration to honor women stemmed from a VGI event held on May 3.
“About 30 women gathered at our new space to discuss what we call women’s work,” said Mead.
“Women are leaders in the food movement across the country, and food is one of the more impactful ways that we’ve made change in our communities historically.”
The colorful design has attracted great attention over the months, according to both Mead and Williams-Ng. Williams-Ng said that her “favorite thing” happened when a driver stopped to check out the mural.
“At this street corner on a Tuesday or Thursday morning, a gentlemen stopped at the four-way stop, and a car behind him honked,” she recalled. “He was just hanging out the window looking, and I said ‘Hey! You’re stopping traffic,’ and he says ‘No, you’re stopping traffic.’”
Upon taking the group inside, Mead explained that the second floor has VGI’s office, and they’re renovating the first floor and its kitchen for events and educational programming. To finish renovations, VGI needs to collect $25,000, which is their third campaign phase. The campaign began when they first bought the building.
The fourth campaign phase includes providing classes and culinary training in the first floor, as well as renting it out for events. One example is VGI’s after-school program and field trips, which Mead said will take place indoors during bad weather days. Additionally, Mead hopes to expand VGI’s partnership with Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).
“We helped MATC’s culinary program grow 100 pounds of potatoes to use in their kitchen. They are trying to incorporate more farm-to-table activities in their curriculum,” said Mead. “We’re in the beginning stages of this relationship, and don’t know where it will go yet.”