Dean Davis was painting in August over the “doodle grid.”

Grain silo murals of Toledo: When two friends asked “what if”?

By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader: a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean checkoff

Two years ago, when friends Brandi Wimberly and Nicole LeBoutillier were on a boat trip on the Maumee River in Toledo and saw the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) grain silos, they saw much more than just concrete structures to hold grain. They saw a canvas to tell the story of the region and of those who came before.

Putting an idea into action

It did not take long once the idea had been hatched, to set the wheels in motion. LeBoutillier called her friend Christina Kasper, who is an art consultant, while she was still on the boat trip. Kasper is President of Urban Sight, Inc. and serves as Project Manager for the Glass City River Wall. The three ladies met for coffee and to come up with a plan. 

“We initially approached the Toledo Arts Commission,” Kasper said. “With the Solheim Cup going on in Toledo this summer, the Arts Commission was very willing to help advise on the project but did not have the capacity to do the project. We did not realize at the time that our project would be the largest mural in the country by 100,000 square feet. The mural itself measures 170,000 square feet.”

The trio had no intentions of breaking any records, but really wanted to beautify the space. 

A steering committee representing a cross section of the city of Toledo was formed, and a budget of $750,000 was established. All the money was raised. An initial grant was received from ADM. Another grant was also received from the port authority for economic development. 

COVID gave perspective

At the same time the idea was coming together, COVID-19 hit, and the group had to pause. They wanted to be sure they were tackling this project for the right reasons. To beautify the space was their initial thought, but as the realities of COVID hit, the project became about much more. 

“We found a bridge to the community, and wanted to connect the community to the project. We decided to take an educational approach,” Kasper said. “That space has a historic marker on the site dedicated to the Native Americans who were traders and farmers, and really the first economic developers of the region.”

With Kasper’s background in art, the next step was to put out an international request for quotation (RFQ) to secure an artist for the project. 

“Numerous proposals were received, but the artist who the group agreed upon was Gabe Gault,” Kasper said. “He said he just wanted to tell the story of Toledo, past, present, and future. He really had a message of positivity. That is why he incorporated the sunflower, which is the flower of hope.”

The mural encompasses 28 grain silos total. The first 25 silos are the same size and contain the sunflower portion of the mural. The last three silos are the largest and will contain portraits of actual Native Americans. 

“We wanted to reach out to the Native American community and build a relationship in order to tell their story,” Kasper said. “The Native Americans that we spoke to had a message to share as well. They want people to know that they live among us and are a people of the present, not just the past, as they are often depicted.” 

The first 25 silos with sunflowers are now complete. The final three silos with murals are in the process of being finished. Ironically the hold-up has been an international shortage of paint resin needed to produce the paint for the final murals. 

Making an impact and changing the landscape

The mural is hard to miss, situated along the Maumee River and just off the east side of I-75 as it crosses the river. 

“An estimated 82,365 cars pass by the location every day. That equates to over 30 million views per year,” Kasper said. 

Grant dollars were received for recruitment and retention and to emphasizes the arts. 

“Toledo has a rich history in the arts that most people are not aware of. We have the first Arts Commission in the state of Ohio. Toledo has one of the longest running 1% for the arts programs in the country. The Toledo Museum of Art is ranked as one of the top 5 art museums in the country,” Kasper said. “We have a really rich history of supporting the arts, and this is just another example of that.”

An educational age adjusted curriculum has been established for students K-12 in Toledo. 

“It asks students to consider who’s story is being told and why, relative to the Native American component. We then ask students what about their own personal story has not yet been told and how they can relate,” Kasper said.  “The legacy of this project will be the educational component and the partnerships. We have established partnerships with Toledo Public Schools, The Toledo Public Library, Imagination Station, Lourdes University, The American Advertising Federation. We put intentionality in to ensure that this is more than just a project, but it is a movement as to how we elevate our entire city.”   

It was two years of planning before the first coat of paint was applied to the silos, but at the end of the day, the mural has already achieved its goal. 

“The space has been beautified, and the project has elevated a sense of pride in the city,” Kasper said. “We wanted people to feel like this is who they are and for them to see a bit of themselves in it, whatever that might look like. Just as someone sees something beautiful in a piece of art and it makes them curious and ask questions. It is the distillation down to the individual person to recognize that they are a thread in the tapestry of this community. That is what makes it beautiful. We are all different, yet we all have something in common. We can all look at something and see something different and yet it can bring us all together.”

The ADM grain silos in Toledo are being transformed into the largest mural in the nation.

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