Mural spreads joy, helps reconnect local familyWritten by Danielle Stanton | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Drinking hot chocolate and eating his chocolate chip cookie, Juleeon Carter appeared like any ordinary boy of Toledo sitting in a coffee shop on a wet, wintery Friday afternoon, just after school let out.
But then he looked outside the plate glass window, across Collingwood Boulevard, at the image of his own face, blown up 22 feet high in vinyl and pinned to the side of a brick building on West Delaware Avenue.
“My bus driver told me this morning she almost cried when she saw the picture,” Juleeon said Dec. 20 as he talked about how his life has changed because of his likeness on the side of a building.
The mural featuring Juleeon’s smiling, joyous face, his white teeth shining, his eyes crinkled, has been a nearly three-year project in the making, impacting Juleeon’s life in profound ways and affecting those around him who worked hard to spread his joy to the world.
The mural recently made national headlines when Emily Rippe of ProMedica, a sponsor of the mural, submitted a picture of Juleeon and his family in front of the mural to a CNN Instagram contest, #CNNMuralStories.
“We couldn’t believe it when this image was one of nine murals chosen to be featured on CNN.com from around the world,” said Robin Charney, the photographer who took the picture of Juleeon and who was instrumental in bringing the mural to fruition. “Our Juleeon, featured right up there alongside murals from Italy, Bangladesh, Sweden and New York City.”
Among CNN’s chosen images were murals featuring prominent historical figures such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. — and alongside them, Juleeon, smiling, Charney said.
“Everyone involved knew this mural would make an impact on the local community, but we had no idea it was going to reach a global audience as well,” Charney said. “The feeling I have is hard to describe. I’m happy for Juleeon and his family, I’m happy for the attention this garners for all the people who work pretty hard to make Toledo a good place to live, but I’m not surprised. … I’ve always felt that this was a special photo, of a special kid.”
Looking at his image from Black Kite coffee shop, Juleeon shrugged, a small smile tugging his lips. He nodded when asked if he thought it was neat and cool and whether he felt like a famous person now: His bus driver nearly crying, his school taking a field trip to see it and — most astounding of all — his father calling after years of absence.
Juleeon said in between bites of cookie that he hadn’t talked to his dad in several years. His father drove by the mural, saw his son and called Juleeon’s mom. The father and son were soon eating out at a local restaurant.
Juleeon says he tried to get on Twitter to find out what people were saying about the mural, but at 11, he’s not old enough. He said he never expected this level of attention.
“Is that you?” Robert Scott, a crossing guard at West Delaware Avenue and Collingwood Boulevard, said to Juleeon, after noticing the mural. “Good job. Good job.”
“He just looks so happy,” Scott said of the mural. “Bring joy, bring joy.”
Scott said he’s witnessed several people walk up to the mural and take their picture in front of it.
Charney, the photographer, told Scott she met Juleeon a few years ago.
“He was so happy I took a picture of him,” she said.
Since 2009, Charney had been attending the picnic hosted each Saturday by Food for Thought at the corner of Adams and Michigan streets Downtown.
“I never intended to spend most Saturdays for five years photographing people who, for the most part, live in extreme poverty, but that’s what I’ve been doing,” Charney said. “Photographing them and then returning their photos to them the following week.”
Juleeon was pestering Charney one Saturday back in 2011. Juleeon wanted his picture taken during the weekly picnic then held on the grounds of the Toledo-Lucas County Main Library. He was 8 then.
“When I printed the picture of Juleeon, I could not help but smile every time I looked at it because he radiated such an intrinsic joy, one that can only come from a child,” Charney said. “This photo was not about hunger or despair; it was about the hope and joy that only can come through connection with another human being.”
The following Saturday Charney tracked down Juleeon and his family at the same location to give them a copy of the picture.
“I gave him and his mom the picture and I said: ‘Juleeon…this kind of joy needs to be shared. … I don’t know how or when, but I think we should put this picture of you up on a wall because it just makes people feel good,’” Charney said. “He and his mom agreed.”
Charney did not, however, take the picture with the intent of creating a mural.
“I’ve photographed a thousand people over the last five years, and never with the intent of showing them to anyone except the person I’ve photographed, but I knew when I saw his face, this was different.”
Charney kept a copy of the picture in her purse for a year as she showed it to different people, including graphic designers, fellow photographers and community members. She contacted The Arts Commission, but said nothing really happened until she met with Rachel Richardson of Art Corner Toledo, who said, “Let’s get it up,” Charney said.
“I’m thrilled that it finally came together because it was a few years in the making,” Richardson said.
The project met with some obstacles, including financial backing, wall availability and people just plain changing their minds, Charney said.
“We’d be almost there, and a building owner would change their mind,” she said. “It was funny because this was a very simple picture, there was no hidden agenda, there was no money to be made, it was just about joy – that was it.”
People were confused about the meaning of the photo, she said. They wanted words, but Charney felt that words would be “preachy.” She wanted to let photograph stand on its own, leaving it up to interpretation.
The project was also put on hold for several months while Charney battled breast cancer. After regaining her health, she worked on the Witness to Hunger program sponsored by ProMedica, where she reconnected with Juleeon and his family.
The program is an exhibition of photographs taken by individuals from Northwest Ohio who struggle to feed their families. ProMedica felt the mural of Juleeon would be a nice extension of that project, said ProMedica communications director Stephanie Cihon.
“It’s really important for us to be a part of the community and give back to the community and this was one way we could do that,” Cihon said.
With financing from ProMedica and Maumee-based CGS Imaging, which transferred the image to vinyl, along with business owner Paul Walker, who donated a wall of his building, the mural was finally put up in October.
“We used to get a lot of graffiti put on the walls,” said Walker, who owns Walker & Sons Auto, 439 W. Delaware Ave. “[The mural] is more appealing. It keeps down the graffiti. … Whoever the young man is, he just looks like us. I thought it was kind of neat.”
Charney felt the impact of the mural when it was just a photo she carried in her purse. The picture made her feel happy and now the mural will make lots of people happy, she said.
“I’m just happy for Juleeon, that people can see him,” she said. “It was what I felt. It was something inside of me. I just felt so happy [to see the photo]. It just made me feel good.”
“I love it,” said Black Kite barista Renee Sarra, who has worked a year and a half at the coffee shop that sits across the street from the mural. “The first day [the mural] was put up, I looked out that window and smiled.”