In Joplin, Mo., a mural is painted on the side of a building at 15th and Maine Streets. Titled "Butterfly Effect: Dreams Take Flight," it's a reflective design, with flying butterflies, rainbows, flowers, children and a crane lifting a fallen tree.

Though it may seem like just another mural, this was painted shortly after the 2011 tornado as a collaboration between lead muralist Dave Loewenstein and members of the community. Because the idea for the project came before the disaster, the mural team wasn't sure if Joplin would want to continue with the mural after the devastation.

However, the town adamantly agreed to continue with the project. 

Projects such as these colorfully depict the towns in which they represent, with pictures of people and objects demonstrating the histories and experiences of the communities. 

When Nicholas Ward and Amber Hansen, University alumni, realized there was a story behind creating these community-based murals, they thought making a film would portray their experiences the best.

“When these works are created and put out in the public, they are there for everyone to see and celebrate, but they are also there for everyone to critique,” Ward said.

Their film, "Called to Walls," focuses on the creation of several different murals around the Midwest that were led and created by Loewenstein. While the film captures the process of creating the murals, it also captures the stories of the people the team met along the way. 

"Called to Walls," which started filming in May 2010, was funded through Kickstarter and is Ward and Hansen’s first feature-length documentary. They finished filming in 2012 but have gone back to the towns featured in the film numerous times to follow up with interviews and to collect extra footage.

Ward and Hansen met while attending the University of South Dakota, where they worked on their first mural project together. They received their undergraduate degrees in art at South Dakota, then came to the University of Kansas, where they received their master's degrees.

Before the idea of "Called to Walls," Hansen and Ward worked as mural assistants with Lowenstein. Originally from Evanston, Ill., Lowenstein came to the University 25 years ago for the painting program. Years later, he created a project with the Mid-America Arts Alliance to visit six towns in a six-state region and create a community-based mural based on designs created by the town. The towns include Tonkawa, Okla.; Newton; Hastings, Neb.; Archadelphia, Ark.; Waco, Texas; and Joplin, Mo.

“There were very beautiful stories, people and histories that we were learning about in these locations that are perhaps lesser known,” Hansen said.

Loewenstein and the MAAA chose the towns of the potential to benefit the people living there — not just for tourism, but to bring people together to talk about the issues that mattered to them. What distinguished this project from others was that the community had to invite the mural project into its town, Ward said.

For each mural project, the team spent three months in each location. The first month the muralists spent researched and informed people how they could get involved. The second month the muralists met with the design team, which included people within the community.

Anyone was allowed to be on the design team, which would talk about what elements it wanted to be represented in the mural and would work to create a color scheme. After that discussion, a horizontal drawing of the mural was created and presented back to the design team, which, at this point, could accept or reject the design.

During the third month, the mural design was projected on the wall that would house the mural. Members of the community came out to help paint during a community paint day.

Kyle Mackenzie, an assistant muralist and a professor of art at Missouri Southern State University, said he didn't realize that only one month of the three-month project would be spent painting. He said he learned a lot from the project.  

Loewenstein said the design process is shown in the film, but as lead muralist, he works for the community to help them tell their story. He said his role is to be a conductor, and it's his responsibility to reflect the experiences the team and the community has during the time they spend together.

Through the process, Hansen and Ward were exposed to a new way that art could function even through a formal art education, which they tried to reflect in the film, Ward said

“When we were creating these works with communities to tell their own stories and that work existed in public, a whole new conversation, dialogues and experiences came out of that," Ward said. "That’s what became for us the most interesting thing and a narrative that we wanted to capture with 'Called to Walls.'"

While members of the community may have been concerned about murals misrepresenting their town, Hansen said the team did its best to prevent that from happening. These concerns are covered in the film, which shows different ways of approaching and addressing those conversations. While the team was in Joplin, Mo., for example, there was concern that the mural would only focus on the tornado.

“In every community, I think there are concerns of what components will get the most focus, and the way that we circumvent or engage with that discussion is that the people on the design team are fully engaged in the process,” Ward said. "The process is very democratic and inclusive."

Ward wanted to make sure the team made a very intentional effort to showcase what it's like when an issue does arise. He said the team doesn’t shy away from controversy or issues in the film.

In Joplin, a member of the community, Sean Conroy, spent time with the film crew driving through devastated areas familiar and meaningful to him. 

“We weren’t there as spectators,” Ward said. "We were there to do a project and we were engaged with people and having discussions."

Hansen said she hopes the film not only allows people to think about murals but also about the visual imagery they are surrounded with every day.

“What if our environment was filled with imagery about things we actually cared about instead of what people would like us to experience?" Hansen said.  

Loewenstein said he thinks the film will change the way people think about murals and help them to understand what it is like to work in a community this way.

“It reflects the perspective of Nicholas and Amber, but I think it shows a behind-the-scenes look of how to paint a mural but also what goes into organizing and the friendships that are built,” Loewenstein said.

Hansen said the interview process consisted of hour-long interviews with community members. When she would relay the stories of what those people had experienced it was hard to explain through words what was taking place, she said.

“There was no way to properly tell the story to where it was conveyed, so it became this notion that as a medium, where you can show the actual person, conversation and place,” Ward said. “You don’t have to evoke it; you can just show the emotion and beauty of what is happening, record it and put it together so that people can see that story."

The story behind the name of the film, "Called to Walls," is yet to be unveiled. Hansen wouldn’t say where the name comes from because it’s featured in the film. However, she gave one hint. 

“If you think of the term walls, you think of a barrier between things but really what the role of these projects and what the film showcases is how these projects can work to help take down barriers,” Ward said.

“So bringing down walls by—” Hansen said.

“—by being called to them.” Ward finished.

"Called to Walls" will show at Spooner Hall at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 5 with a panel discussion afterwards. 

— Edited by Amber Vandegrift