It’s always painting weather to Matt McDowell and Erik Burke, whose recent mural features images of Glenn Duncan Elementary students and their favorite fruits and vegetables.
It’s always painting weather to Matt McDowell and Erik Burke, whose recent mural features images of Glenn Duncan Elementary students and their favorite fruits and vegetables.

A new mural is up in the city of Reno. Over 100 silhouettes of children span the length of a one-block retaining wall on East 10th Street, just beyond the grounds of Glenn Duncan Elementary School. Painted inside many of the silhouettes are images of healthful food items. Some have juicy-looking strawberries or the ripe green cross section of an avocado. Some of the other silhouettes depict the Reno skyscape ranging from wispy clouds against blue to the cotton candy pink and purple gradient of the Nevada sunset. The mural finishes with an image of a public housing unit.

“It’s a combination of ’you are what you eat,’ and ’you’re a reflection of your environment,’” said Erik Burke, the lead artist on the mural. He and his team spent a day during winter at Glenn Duncan asking students to pose as if they were doing their favorite activity. Burke’s team used lights to project the silhouettes of the kids, tracing them onto rolls of paper while they asked them about their favorite foods. The artists then transferred the silhouettes to the mural wall.

According to Burke, the most popular food choices were strawberries and watermelon.

“Some of the kids really caught us off guard because they were like, ’Oh, I want pomegranate,’ and we’re like, ’Whoa, that’s awesome, you’re in second grade, and your food of choice is pomegranate,’” said Burke. “The kids responded well. … A lot of greens, too, which was interesting, like broccoli.”

The mural came about as a collaborative initiative between the Washoe County Health District and the Reno Housing Authority. A request for proposals was announced last October to design a mural that would highlight smoke-free housing, healthy eating and physical activity.

“In past years, the Washoe County Health District has always allotted some funds to chronic disease prevention-related advertisements,” said Lona Bogale, health educator at the Health District and the lead on this project. “We had an idea to try to do something more grassroots this year and something a little bit different that involves the community.”

This project received financial support from the Fund for a Healthy Nevada and the Nevada Division of Welfare and Supportive Services.

According to Bogale, the Washoe County Health District reached out to the Reno Housing Authority to inquire about a wall that would be suitable for this mural. The housing authority offered the 1,500-foot retaining wall on East 10th Street that backs up to the Mineral Manor neighborhood, which includes 144 public housing units and the RHA’s administrative building.

Neighborhood initiatives

The mural is one of many efforts that different groups are making to promote long-term health in the neighborhood.

Since 2015, the RHA has implemented a 100 percent smoke-free policy for its 1,615 public housing units in Washoe County. A 2015 media release from Washoe County Health District states that the voluntary policy reduces incidences of heart disease, cancer and other heart and lung-related health risks in their tenants.

“From the housing authority perspective, the policy has also extended the life of our units,” said Amy Jones, executive director of the Reno Housing Authority. “The turns on the units are less costly because we don’t have the smoke damage to the unit. We’re not having to replace carpets, blinds, paint the units as much as we would have to if there was a smoker in that unit.”

Jessica Koltz, the school counselor at Glenn Duncan, said that the school is a Title 1 eligible school. This means that it receives federal assistance for services like free breakfast, lunch and dinner for students. She said that the school also has a food bag program, which on Thursdays provides students with extra groceries they can bring home for the weekend. Additionally, Glenn Duncan is home to a greenhouse and garden beds that are maintained by the students.

According to Koltz, the school administration is very supportive. She plans to bring the students across the street to visit the mural and give them an opportunity to explore and acknowledge the artwork and its impact on their community.

“The goal and hope is that a mural like this inspires kids to look at fruits and vegetables in a new way, and kind of be reminded of them,” said Burke. “Sometimes when you paint something in such a large, bold way, you get to really look at it. Looking at it generates this interest in kids in foods that are healthy and good for you and will having a lasting effect on you.”

Brent Boynton, Community Outreach Coordinator at the Reno Housing Authority, likes the way the mural has added some color to the block. “We’re just pretty excited to take one of the drab, dreary parts of the neighborhood and make it kind of a showpiece,” he said.

Burke and his team started working on the mural in February. They said that the process has been labor intensive, including prepping and priming the wall, adding the silhouettes, painting the negative space and filling in the food choices. All the while, they’ve been fighting the wind and rain and snow of springtime in Reno.

However, Burke said this mural isn’t the coldest outdoor artwork he’s done, alluding to a piece he finished in the dead of winter in Eureka.

According to Burke, students at Glenn Duncan have been going by and pointing, saying, “Hey, that’s me,” or “That’s my sister.” Some students from Traner Middle School even helped in the painting process.

“One of the reasons that we chose [Burke] was because he had the overall experience and vision on how to best incorporate the youth and residents that lived in the area,” said Bogale. “That was something that was really important to us, because we wanted it to be a mural for the neighborhood and the community.”

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