A Closer Look
Murals of Janesville
A Historical Tour Through 50 Years of Public Art
Story and Interviews by Teresa Nguyen
“I am happy Janesville is finally embracing downtown public art, something that has been available in other communities for decades. The artists are doing a great job!” ~ Val Saxer
Part of the "Janesville Circuit" mural by local artist, Jim Richter
Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
Read Part 1 with interviews of the 2020 mural artists!
“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” – John F. Kennedy
Janesville could easily be called The City of Parks AND Art. The new downtown murals are certainly not the beginning of blossoming designs and color here. Our community has been a hub for artists of all types since the 1800s. The Janesville Art League was founded all the way back in 1891 by Mrs. Ella Hotelling Tanberg. It was known then as the "Sketchers Club" and the group was officially established in 1893. Their first exhibit was held in 1895.
The league needed a building and thanks to the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. George Parker, who gave $10,000.00 toward construction, and the donation of the lot from Mrs. W.H.H. Malcloon, they finally had a home at 108 South Jackson. It opened in 1928 with an art gallery on the second floor. The Women’s Club is still home to the Janesville Art League. The art league also has a gallery at the Janesville Performing Arts Center, with special art shows and exhibits throughout the year.
Local artists from painters to jewelry makers, photographers and fabric artists have grown up here or settled in our community. Many sell their beautiful creations and show their work through displays at Raven’s Wish Art Gallery at 101 West Milwaukee Street. The gallery is owned by artist, Alicia Read.
Years ago, Alicia had encountered many professional artists in the area who didn't have a public space to display their work. So, in addition to professional framing, Alicia turned the rest of her store into an art gallery. In 2007, she only had 6 artists. Today, more than 70 artists from Rock County and across the country display their work at Raven's Wish.
Starting in 2019, Becky Saliby, Referral Specialist at St. Elizabeth Campus, had the idea to showcase local artists, like the well-known, Connie Glowacki, at the nursing facility. The exhibit rotates every few months. (The 2020 pandemic has slowed the artist rotations for the safety of the residents.)
Part of the Janesville Women's Club at 108 S. Jackson
From the smaller paintings and sketches to larger than life murals on downtown walls, art is woven into the fabric of our local culture in Rock County. Though it may seem that Janesville’s murals are a recent phenomenon, we have had a decades long history of murals in our city, adorning the façades of our buildings and beautifying our community.
Let’s time travel through 50 years of interesting and eye-catching mural art, starting back in a year when the Beatles closed their band curtain with "The Long and Winding Road", The Jackson 5 were topping the charts and The Carpenters' hit "Close to You" got stuck on repeat in your head.
1970 - Communication History Sculpture by Constantino Nivola
The Façade of the Janesville Gazette Building
This 33-panel sculpture mural was created from sand and concrete by Italian artist Constantino Nivola, an Italian architectural sculptor, muralist, designer and teacher. It represents communication forms throughout the ages. Each panel weighs approximately one ton!
Nivola was born in Sardinia, fled his country's Fascism, heading to Paris in 1938. He then immigrated to the U.S. in 1939. From the late 1950s through the 70s, Nivola erected multiple sculptures on buildings around the U.S..
He worked in abstract, large-scale architectural relief, using sandcasting and cement carving processes. Nivola also taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Columbia University, UC Berkeley, and elsewhere.
Constantino died of a heart attack in Long Island, NY in May 1988.
Mid-1970s - Sunset Mural by Tom Darnold
9 North Main Street (Above the Former Dorothy’s Record Store)
There was once a contemporary mural at this location, just above Legends, which happens to be across the street from the newest downtown mural by Jeff Henriquez.
The mural resembled a sunset and celestial images, with a wavy pattern of pastel colors. The mural was painted by Tom Darnold and a few friends. Tom was a student at U-Rock, but then moved shortly after painting the mural.
It was recently painted over.
Black and white photo shared by the late Christopher Rabuck
1999 - “Rebirth” Mural (Butterfly) by Valerie Saxer
South Jackson St and West Milwaukee Street
This fun mural was painted by local artist Valerie Saxer on the side of Crazy Joe's Best Deal Furniture which faces Jackson street and the West Milwaukee intersection. It depicts a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis and flying away.
Back in 1999, Valerie was involved with the Downtown Facade program, which gave grants to qualifying store owners to spruce up their store fronts. From there, a group of 9 or 10 from a committee traveled to Belvidere to speak with city planners regarding their massive mural project.
Local artist, Valerie Saxer
The group decided to start small, so Valerie painted one and the group hired another artist for the mural that was on the old Bear Trap.
Valerie’s inspiration for Rebirth came from Downtown Janesville’s efforts to revitalize the area. Various committees were formed to focus on different areas. The main focus was to bring life, businesses and pedestrians back to the area. Valerie decided that “Rebirth” was a fitting analogy.
When asked in an interview about the 2020 Mural Festival, Valerie said, “I am happy Janesville is finally embracing downtown public art, something that has been available in other communities for decades. The artists are doing a great job!”
"Rebirth" mural by Valerie Saxer
2007 - Music Icons by and repainted by Mitchell Highnam
1259 Milton Ave at The Exclusive Company
The original colored mural was done in 2007 by an Exclusive Company employee and his friend, depicting various artists from different musical genres. In an interview with former manager, Leann Heise, there was a bit of an ordeal to get the project past in the Janesville City Council because some members debated whether it served as a kind of advertising. Leanne remarked that she thought it was no different than the little cheese shop just up the street, with a cow painted on the exterior. It eventually passed in the council.
After nearly a decade, much of the paint was peeling and it was time to redo the mural. According to an interview with current manager, Drew Metter, someone had started to repaint the mural, but didn't finish. Former employee and freelance artist, Mitchell Highnam, who had attended art school, then asked to work on it and was chosen.
The selection of musical artists for the mural was done through voting by the store employees. They wanted to have a little something for everyone, as far as variety of genres and such. After voting, these iconic musicians were chosen: Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Prince, Kurt Cobain and Nas.
In 2016, Mitchell first whitewashed and primed the wall and then began painting the new mural. By 2017, the project was completed. While driving south on Milton Avenue, near the intersection of Mt. Zion, one can see this amazing mural of great musicians on the wall of The Exclusive Company.
Railroad mural by Jim Richter
Photo from a Gazette Staff article, Oct 21, 2009
2009 - “Heart of the City” Outdoor Art Campaign
Four Downtown Murals by Jim Richter, Larry Schultz and Ron Wick
In 2009, Christine Moore, of the design center, and consultant, Jeff Larson, of The Larson Group, began designing a public art campaign with the theme of “History, Vision and Janesville”. These ideas were inspired by the “Wisconsin Hometown Stories” documentary (2006), produced by Wisconsin Public Television and the Wisconsin Historical Society.
The Janesville murals are 22 feet by 29 feet, printed on UV-coated vinyl and wrapped around aluminum frames. The following describes each of these interesting murals reflecting our history.
The Railroad Mural - by Jim Richter
This mural, once located on the Municipal Building, depicted the railroad and its significance in the 1850s. Both businessmen and track layers built the railroads, which connected Janesville to many other communities, growing our local economy.
In the mural were the images of Abraham Lincoln and William Tallman. Lincoln came to Janesville in 1859 to speak to the community and stayed as a guess at the home of Mr. Tallman. His house is depicted in the clouds
Water of Janesville - by Larry Schultz
This mural is located on the east side of the Adams Publishing building (formerly Bliss Communications). It can be seen driving down E. Milwaukee.
The design and painting by Larry Schultz represents the 1840-1850 erection of the dams and the power of the Rock River, which was vital to the growth of our community's economy and settlement.
The Land Mural - painted by Ron Wick of Rockford, IL
This mural was once located at 101 East Milwaukee Street depicting the growth of Janesville by land. The mural represented the hard work and determination that expanded agriculture in Rock County. It showed an early pioneer farmer wiping his brow after working a hard day on his farm. Additionally, the portrait of Henry Janes, Janesville`s namesake, was seen in the corner of the mural amidst a sea of growing wheat, one of our earlier crops, plus a view of the well-known Monterey Rock.
Women in History - Painted by Ron Wick of Rockford, IL
The mural is located on the Rock County Courthouse building at 51 S Main St, and can be viewed from Main Street or Court Street.
This significant Janesville mural was redone in 2020, the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, to accurately depict the face of successful Janesville lawyer, Lavinia Goodell.
Land mural photo from the JACVB
2016 (July/August) - American Flag by Nancy Planter
Located along Wall Street at The Whiskey Ranch Bar & Grill
This mural, painted by Nancy Planter in July and August of 2016, shows a larger than life, 15-foot-high and 60-foot-long waving American flag. It is a welcoming site for the community every Saturday at the Janesville Farmers Market down on Main Street.
In an October, 2016 interview with Anna Marie Lux, Platner said it was the first mural she painted. Nancy is known locally for her chalk art designs and runs a business called, Chalk It Up to Nancy.
2016 (September/October) - Rainforest Climbing Wall by Teresa Nguyen
Located in Camden Playground at Palmer Park
This 11-foot-wide by 13-foot-tall mural was painted as a contribution to the Camden Playground rebuild in the fall of 2016.
The original playground at Palmer Park was built in 1993 by over 3,000 volunteers as the largest accessible and most accessible playground in the world! It quickly became a local favorite destination for children of all ages.
The playground was rebuilt in the fall of 2016 and opened in June of 2017.
Teresa thought a colorful rainforest in the heartland of America would be a fun idea for the children. After completing the mural, Teresa designed an educational sign, donated by Sullivan Signs, to share information about each of the animals on the climbing wall.
In the fall of 2020, the well-used climbing wall mural was repaired and touched up with fresh paint.
2016 (October) - Janesville Circuit by James Richter
Located on the corner of South High and West Milwaukee Street
Painted by local artist, Jim Richter, this mural features several iconic Chevy cars, from the ‘55 to the ‘59 Chevy. The 60-foot-long wall mural is an acknowledgement to General Motors of Janesville. It recognizes the 90-year heritage of GM Janesville, a legacy of our local culture.
The mural is also a nod to “cruising the circuit” or “scooping the loop” as some called it. It reflects an era when kids, in their cool cars, would drive a looped route through the downtown streets, right past where this mural is located. It was part of a weekly ritual and a fun part of teen life.
Jim Richter's "Janesville Circuit" Mural
Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
James (Jim) Richter
Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
2018 Janesville Mural by Jim Richter
Located off of Festival Street near the intersection of West Milwaukee (Doty Mill Alley)
Jim Richter’s Janesville mural was part of a Leadership Development Academy group project. The group’s goal was to revitalize the alley behind Dubes Jewelry and the Rock River Charter School; Doty Mill Alley. The team, The Solid 6, named the project The Doty Mill Alley Beautification Project. The six academy students began cleaning up the alley and making plans in the summer of 2018.
Local artist, Jim Richter was brought on to do the mural, but had to wait for some of the ARISE Now construction projects.He was finally encouraged to just start on the mural by the late Ken Corey of Dubes Jewelry. Jim began the mural in October and worked until snow arrived in southern Wisconsin. He completed the colorful mural the following spring.
Jim Richter working on his "Janesville Circuit" Mural
Photo by David Graham
In a postcard-like style, this beautiful mural depicts several iconic Janesville places and events, such as Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Janesville, Parker Pen, General Motors, the Rotary Gardens and the Rock Aqua Jays waterski team.
It has become a favorite Janesville selfie spot for local residents and visitors alike.
In September of 2020, Jim began his latest project - a new downtown mural in the alley behind a Richter family owned building on West Milwaukee Street. This is Jim's third mural in downtown Janesville, beautifying our community.
Jim Richter's "Janesville" Mural
Photo by Kim Hoholek
Jim wanted to paint this whimsical, fun design, especially in this challenging year, because of it's message - "Keep Looking Up". On his fundraising page, Jim wrote, "More than any other time this sums up the sentiment I think we all feel."
If you are interested in donating to the Facebook fundraiser for Jim Richter's delightful new mural in downtown Janesville, click the donate button here:
Jim Richter's "Keep Looking Up" Mural
Photo by Marsha Mood Photography
"Keep Looking Up" - painting by Jim Richter
2019 - Black Hawk Mural - by Jeff Henriquez
29 South Main (At 29 South Café)
New York based artist, Jeff Henriquez, was contracted by Nigella Ryan and several other Janesville residents to do a large, outdoor mural. It was Jeff’s largest wall mural since he had started doing murals about 6 years prior.
Jeff did his own research on Chief Black Hawk, this area’s Sauk tribe leader, before starting the painting. In an interview with WMTV of Madison, Jeff commented on the meaning behind the subject choice,
“I think the more visual language we use representing them, the more power they have," he said.
This was just the beginning of Jeff’s mission to make a difference for people of color through his art. With this mural, Jeff hoped it might encourage more communities to recognize their native history.
Every day, people in the community came down to visit. After nearly two weeks, when the mural was completed, a Native American Drum Circle ceremony was held.
Native American Janesville leader, Billy Bob Grahn noted, “I thought it was a huge breakthrough for Janesville to have this wall, so big and so prominent, without resistance, no one complained. It was a huge moment of faith in my own community.”
Henriquez told reporter, Sanika Bhargaw, "If I could wrap my career around doing these in every state, to give proper representation to the native indigenous people, I would jump on it right away."
View a video of the Drum Circle Ceremony: