How public art is changing Oxford and other U.S. towns

Colorful photo of the Oxford mural with the Oxford water tower in the background. Photo by Karly Caton.
Colorful photo of the Oxford mural with the Oxford water tower in the background. Photo by Karly Caton.

With the addition of a new mural on University Avenue and Oxford’s arts center, the Powerhouse, located there – this semester Oxford Stories is embarking on a small solutions journalism project. Our reporters are starting a community conversation about the possibility of a continued arts emphasis in the University Avenue area.

Lily Garner
Oxford Stories

Arts, culture, and creativity can improve a community’s competitive edge, attract new visitors, and integrate the visions of both community and business leaders. That’s why some view public art as an investment.

In downtown Dayton, Ohio, public art fills the streets, even along the Great Miami River. Dayton native Amy Deal said the influence of public art in Dayton has resulted in a “positive impact to communities via identity, cohesion, and culture.”

There are many areas throughout Dayton with murals. Some were painted by Deal, who knows firsthand how art can transform a community, turning it into something beautiful. Deal transformed a blank wall on RiverScape along the Miami River into a mural that represents the area.

“Frankly, it was an ugly wall that would benefit the city to be painted,” she said. “It gives a great backdrop for all activities and events on the river at RiverScape.”

Deal was inspired by the water. The Great Miami River is healthy with wildlife and recreation, and all of the visuals in her mural support that environment.

Oxford’s mural

Oxford also recently added a mural to University Avenue, but you may not know the story behind the art. When driving down the street, you may have noticed girls standing at the side of Sneed’s Hardware taking pictures of themselves in front of the new mural painted last summer.

Murals are a common backdrop for “VSCO girls,” a term used to describe a trend among young women who take chic pictures and edit them on an app called VSCO to share on Instagram and social media sites.

The Oxford mural has inspired others to question the possible addition of more public art throughout Oxford.

When artists Wendel Burnious, Wendo, and JoLean Barkley struck up a conversation with sculptor Earl Dismuke after meeting at a group art exhibition at Studio Wavelength, they were animated with an idea to introduce a different way of public art to Oxford, Dismuke’s hometown.

“We were excited to help inspire and motivate any mural making in Oxford,” Barkley said. “He [Dismuke] was eager to help find us a wall and enhance his hometown with more public art.”

The owners of Sneed’s Hardware, the Shaws, had been wanting to create a mural on the side of their building for a while. After reviewing other muralists’ resumes, they choose the team of Wendo, Barkley, Angel Perdermo and Dismuke to design an abstract, nonrepresentational and colorful mural. Soon, production of the mural was underway.

“Wendo’s design, our teamwork, and Earl’s dedication made for the perfect collaboration,” said Barkely.

The Shaws wanted a mural with a nonrepresentational theme. Wendo designed a colorful, fun composition using various shapes and colors that could represent anything.

“Much like looking at the clouds in the sky, he [Wendo] wanted the viewer to determine what they see,” said Barkley. “Looking at the different shapes and colors and using their imagination as to what it is or could be is the purpose of the composition.”

They wanted to create an abstract mural everyone could enjoy and self-interpret. The team was delighted to have the community’s support. They received help with the painting, visits from people dropping off cold drinks, and those who just stopped to talk to about the mural or art in general. Wendo’s design, the group’s teamwork, and Dismuke’s dedication made for the perfect collaboration.

The Value of Public Art

Barkley sees a lot of potential in the Oxford community and believes there is enough space and eagerness for more public art.

“Murals not only brighten your commute to work or school, but also allow you to be childlike again,” he said. “A mural can inspire your own imagination and creativity. They can probe questions about society, act as a memorial, or respond to the environment. Public art is accessible to the entire community and unlike a gallery, public art can be freely enjoyed anytime.”

According to, public art plays a role in our country’s history and culture, reflecting our society, enhancing meaning in civic spaces, and adds uniqueness to our communities.

According to the report Why Public Art Matters 2018, 70 percent of Americans believe the “arts improve the image and identity” of their community.

Half of people with college degrees (49 percent) and a majority of Millennials (52 percent) and Generation Xs (54 percent) say they would strongly consider whether a community is rich in the arts when deciding where to locate for a job.

The report offers the following examples of the impact of public art:

  • Reston Town Center in Reston, Virginia has a less than one-half of one percent (0.5 percent) office vacancy rate in a region where the average office vacancy is 16-18 percent. Real estate broker Joe Ritchey attributed the low vacancy rate in part to the public art located in the center.
  • The Farm/Art DTour in Sauk County, Wisconsin generated tourism in the area by bringing in an estimated 4,200 visitors—over 65% of whom traveled over 50 miles to see it. It also helped increase the revenue of many local businesses. Some saw revenue increases as much as 300%.

Deal believes public art is important to communities.

“Art builds and humanizes an environment,” she said. “It creates past, present, and future with ideas for society.”

Deal said public art is a great community investment that can provide financial returns.

“The intangible benefits of public art create beauty, cultural interpretation, education, inspiration, and general improvement of an urban environment,” Deal said. “I will go as far as saying public art creates sustainability of a community.”

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