14 MIN READ
Bryan Stoller /
Murals can make a difference
The story you are about to read is about murals, but it’s also about memories and how spaces can shape the way we feel.
When I started working on this story, I asked my friends about grocery shopping. Quickly, the conversations turned to reminiscence. Tiny details from their childhoods started percolating—the same vignettes started showing up over and over again.
Sure, grocery shopping can be a drudgery, a chore—and nobody likes chores—but it can be kind of peaceful, a moment to reflect, a time to ponder the mysteries and questions that people ponder when they, you know, have time to ponder mysteries and questions. Someone we talked to at a Kroger in Versailles, Kentucky made the point that it seems like the world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time. With everything moving so quickly, isn’t it kind of nice to know you can go to the grocery store and just roam around the aisles reminding yourself of when you were too young to reach some of those top-shelf cookies? In fact, almost everyone I asked the question, ‘what’s your earliest memory of grocery shopping’ gave an answer that included anecdotes about a parent, usually mom, saying ‘no’ to fervent requests for sweets, treats, and cookies. What surprised me was the lack of malice in their voices. Almost everyone remembers this experience with a smile. I think this is because the memory of being told that we can’t have something reminds us that we were cared for, that someone loved us. Love isn’t something you would expect to find in a grocery store (though, according to our research, the Kroger in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood is considered a top singles destination) but the act of grocery shopping can unearth powerful memories and feelings.
Kroger knows this. Not only does Kroger know this because it’s a giant corporation who wouldn’t be so giant but for their ability to understand their customers, but Kroger also knows this because it’s obvious. I knew next to nothing about the grocery business and quickly figured out that grocery stores are tripwires for empathy and desire and excitement. Sure, every big brand out there is trying to figure out how to ‘emotionally engage,’ but what makes Kroger unique is the built-in tenderness and very real vulnerability one experiences in a grocery store. I decided to make it my business to figure out how murals play into this equation.
Murals can make a difference, and this is where I show my hand and tell you what this story was supposed to be about in terms of ‘the ask.’ If you’re reading this in St. Louis odds are you know what a Kroger is, but you don’t know what ArtWorks Cincinnati is. (WARNING. MISSION STATEMENT INCOMING.)
Founded in 1996, ArtWorks is an award-winning non-profit organization that employs and trains local youth and talent to create art and community impact. ArtWorks empowers and inspires the creative community to transform our everyday environments through employment, apprenticeships, education, community partnerships, and civic engagement.
A mouthful of beautiful platitudes, I know, but I promise you that ArtWorks is the real deal, dedicated—really dedicated—to making people’s lives better through public art. ArtWorks’ founder and executive director, Tamara Harkavy believes in the power of public art. She is a witness to art’s ability to alter physical and social landscapes. Here’s Tamara:
In an urban environment that’s blighted, a mural can serve as an anchor for change. This is not trite at all. You put a mural on a wall that’s the backdrop to a vacant lot, it’s almost like that book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, he’s gonna want a glass of milk. So, you paint a mural, and then someone cleans up the garbage and then somebody else plants trees and flowers and someone else lights it and then all of a sudden you don’t have blight, you have a safer environment, you have community pride, and maybe it’s the impetus to do something else, something bigger.
Tamara is the ‘cool mom’ of the neighborhood, embodying the kind of youthful spirit to which we all aspire. She is enamored with the idea that art is not an avocation, but a vocation, something that people can actually do to make money. Sure, it’s fun to be creative, but she also sees artists as skilled tradespeople, problem solvers, scientists, and technologists. “Artists are lucky,” she says, “they get to do all of these different things and be creative and figure it all out for the rest of us.” The story of how Kroger and Artworks joined forces is one of those ‘only in Cincinnati’ stories. Tamara: “Kroger is the largest grocery store chain or company or corporation in the galaxy, and they happen to be across the street from my office. The story of Kroger and ArtWorks began at the Cincinnati Zoo. I was walking over the bridge, on my way to an event, and met these two wonderful people from Kroger, Ken Pray and Lynn Marmer. I introduced myself and said, ‘Hey. We want to do a mural on your wall downtown,’ and they were like… ‘Okay!’ and the rest is written on the walls.”
Ken Pray is Kroger’s Corporate Director of Store Design. He is deliberate and reserved but confident and gracious; well put together but not a suit. When I asked Ken about the ArtWorks/Kroger alliance, his eyes lit up with childlike joy, as if I had just offered him front-row tickets to see his favorite band. “I went to art school, but I realized architecture was more practical. But even then, I thought I was going to be Howard Roark, designing these beautiful facades. When I graduated, I had to get a job, and luckily I found Kroger. Retail design is really challenging, it’s about constantly changing and adapting.” As Ken’s career with Kroger took off and his family grew, he drifted further away from the artistic community he had been so taken with as a young man. For Ken, the chance to work with ArtWorks represents the fulfillment of a personal promise to return to the creative ecosystem and, in doing so, provide opportunities for local artists to get their work seen by a larger audience.
The experiment began with a photorealistic mural of fresh produce bathed in moody light, arranged as a still-life and blown up to fill the eastern-facing flank of Kroger’s corporate HQ in downtown Cincinnati. Jonathan Queen’s “Fresh Harvest” spans ninety feet of wall—ninety feet of vivid greens, purples, yellows and reds. Viewing the piece, we’re reminded of the sage health advice to ‘eat your colors.’
With the opening of a conceptually novel store in Lexington, KY, Ken asked Tamara and ArtWorks to consult on a Lexington-based community mural project.
The Euclid Kroger in Lexington sits on a small footprint on the corner of a lush, tree-lined college neighborhood. With a two-story parking garage instead of a sprawling lot and a contemporary design locals lovingly refer to as “disco Kroger,” the new store intentionally reframes the grocery concept in terms of its surrounding community. Yes, we’re on team Kroger, so that kind of puts us in a biased position, but believe us when we say they nailed it. By creating familial warmth with bright colors, expanded dining and seating options and in-store murals developed by local artists, Kroger has effectively redesigned not just the physical space, but the actual experience of visiting a grocery store. And you can feel it. Maybe it was the perfect weather or just dumb luck, but when we showed up to interview shop-goers about the new store and its murals, we felt like we had walked into a person’s home. In fact, ‘home’ was a word we heard over and over again. People felt at home in this Kroger. They knew the associates from manager to cashier, they knew each other. And it didn’t feel cheesy or manufactured. We’re a group of twenty-somethings, we can smell cheesy/manufactured from a mile away. No, this was something else entirely. People—customers and employees alike—seemed genuinely happy to be there.
Along with ArtWorks, Kroger worked with Lexington’s local arts council, LexArts, to pull together a selection committee that included the store manager, a member of the Lexington City Council and local students. The committee received over forty submissions, selecting three pieces to be placed above the produce section, in the café seating area, and across three panels on the outside wall of the store. The murals reflect the local community, depicting scenes from nearby Woodland Park. Kroger did the same for their Versailles, KY location down the road, selecting professional artists who live and work in Versailles to contribute original works to the store. It isn’t just that people like art, they like art by their friends and neighbors. Kroger could have paid an artist with national recognition to enhance their stores, which would have been nice. People would have looked at a mural painted by a nameless artist and said, “oh, that’s nice.” But instead, they made the choice to support local artists and that makes people feel good. It makes them feel respected, loved even. After Euclid’s opening, Kroger CEO, Rodney McMullen, leaned over to Ken Pray, pointed at the murals and asked, ‘why aren’t we doing this in all our stores?’ And so they will.
That is Bo Wachendorf’s charge. Bo is a graphic and environmental designer with a background that includes public relations and project management. Possessing the rare combination of creativity and organization, some of his co-workers refer to him as ‘the Kroger Curator,’ a role he cherishes. “This year, we’ll place 50 murals in Kroger stores across the country. Next year, that number goes up to 57,” Bo told me over the phone. It’s a daunting task, but he’s not alone on the journey. “I’m working with over 30 local arts organizations to find artists who not only have experience with large-scale graphic and mural work but who have deep ties to their cities and want to be part of this unique opportunity.” I asked him what this project means to him, and without pause, he responded, “Community. I see this project as helping communities define their spaces on their own terms. Not every city or suburb is lucky enough to have public art, so I’m proud to be able to help artists find work, and to have that work improve the experience our customers have with our stores.” Bo is helping Kroger spread the love.
Love is everywhere in a Kroger. Parents and kids, boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, shopping for the things they need. Relationships are about needs. When you go to the grocery store, you’re there to support the people you love. Amidst constant change in the world—even as the physical store itself changes—Kroger remains what it is: a comfort zone. Familiar. You might be frustrated, or sad, or full of joy. You might be alone or followed by a gaggle of kids, but Kroger always keeps an even keel. Visiting these stores and talking to people made me realize that the story I’m telling is way more than “corporate giant supports local arts.” It’s about our humanity. It’s about memory. It’s about the fact that grocery stores don’t just sell food, they provide nourishment.
A Taste of Italy
22 MIN READ
60 miles west of Venice, Italy
International Flavor, Y'all
7 MIN READ
A Microbial Feast
Lucas L. Colb
16 MIN READ
A Taste of Italy
22 MIN READ
60 miles west of Venice, Italy
International Flavor, Y'all
7 MIN READ