By Jim Force | Special to Wausau Pilot & Review

A stone-age human from three million years ago walking down a street in Wausau might not feel totally out of place.

That’s because the many murals appearing in increasing numbers on the sides of our buildings could remind our Paleolithic pedestrian of home.

The social or political context of the artwork might not be comprehensible, but the old-timer would probably understand there’s a message somewhere amongst the brightly colored pictures and designs. After all, this kind of artwork has been around for a long time—with ancient pictographs traced to the early cave inhabitants and found all over the Earth. 

According to sources such as Mural Form and Youth Murals, this type of art as been around for as long as humans have walked the Earth.

 “People scratched them, carved them, etched them, and painted them” on stone surfaces.


Older murals, like those inside the Sistine Chapel, often employed the “fresco” technique of applying wet plaster blended with colored pigments directly to plaster walls. Murals today are applied in a variety of traditional and non-traditional ways, and frequently use acrylics or even digital techniques.

In the U.S., the appearance of murals roughly coincides with the onset of graffiti and street art in the second half of the 1900s. Large metro areas with a cultural mix like New York, San Francisco, LA, and Miami are considered precursors. As they are here in Wausau and central Wisconsin, murals are experiencing a renaissance on private and public buildings and can have a dramatic impact on the attitudes of those who view them.

Joel Pataconi, art teacher and department lead at Wausau East High School, agrees.

“I do think that murals can help breathe life into and personalize a community,” he said. “Art can create more economic benefits than many realize.  Plus, [art] makes us feel better to see it and have it in our spaces.”

Rise Up

Artists and their sponsors often want the works to convey a specific message, or make a statement.

That was the motivation behind huge city murals prepared by “Rise Up”–a local 501C3 organization committed to helping people overcome addictions and fulfill their life purpose.

Tara Draeger leads the Rise Up team and says the idea behind the murals was to involve local artists and ordinary citizens in dramatically depicting hope and a path to recovery.

“It’s based on work we’ve seen in Philadelphia, and we thought we could bring it to Wausau,” Draeger said. “It connects patients with the community, and demonstrates community support as well as a sense of ownership.” 

The process is just as important as the finished product, and illustrates what art can do to address social change. She says it’s important that someone can say “I painted the eye.”

In the first project, 5×5 cloth panels were painted and affixed to the south side of the Frontier Communications building on Fourth St. 

In collaboration with the Women’s Community, the mural on the Whitewater Music Hall was painted on the exterior walls. It closes with these words: “I might not make history. I might not be the smartest person. But I know this much, I can still Rise Up. Rise Up to be a strong person. Rise Up to help others, Rise Up to be the person someone will remember even when I am gone…”

“We’ve had good feedback,” Draeger said. “Our community loves art.”

She could have added, the community cares about helping people, too.

Community spirit

Working together is the theme of a new mural at the brand-new Community Partners Campus on Grand Avenue. 

A huge colorful image of a handshake on an interior wall greets visitors to the new building and is designed to depict the community coming together to help those in need.

Rise Up, with local muralist Stephanie Kohli, created the image and—following a sectional paint-by-numbers approach—a group of local citizens filled in the colors during a one-day workshop. Stephanie says she designs a mural in Adobe Photoshop so the building owner can see what it will look like, then creates the image on paper panels that can be painted and pieced together on the surface.

There’s a clear social function to urban murals, she says. “They give people a voice. They represent energy and diversity.”

Kohli said she’s created more than 40 murals in central Wisconsin, starting in 2017. Now she notes “they’re popping up all over.”

North Third Street

Social change was on the mind of Gisela Marks when—a few years back—she launched a mural painting project in the neighborhood of her Glass Hat Bar on Third St., just north of the railroad tracks.

She says she felt that the artwork could help draw attention to North Third and create an “art lives here” vibe. “Neighborhood blight and economic growth on our side of the tracks were my main motivation,” she says. 

“There was a lot of support and development in the central downtown, and riverfront, but not on this side of the railroad tracks,” Marks said. “This could be a great little arts district.

“I still envision the Alexander Walkway being an outdoor sculpture garden.” 

She was able to secure a modest amount of funding and find artists interested in creating murals and property owners willing to let their buildings serve as canvases, as it were.

“We obtained submissions from a number of artists and selected 10 we wanted to work with,” Marks said. The artists worked on their building paintings during the Festival of Arts.

All told, Marks says 11-12 murals have been created. In addition to her building, you’ll find murals on Loppnow’s bar, the Polack Inn, Black Purl knitting shop, and a number of other businesses and residences along Second and Third Streets.

Walls of Wittenberg

Urban murals are nothing new to the small town of Wittenberg, 30 miles east of Wausau. 

Back in 2005, the community began sponsoring artists to design and paint murals on the walls of buildings in the downtown area,

It was an effort to put the town back on the map after state highway 29 circumvented the city and motorists whizzed past without seeing more of Wittenberg than the water tower and the exit signs.

According to their website, Lois Smith, one of the town’s leaders, had seen murals on buildings while vacationing in Florida, and thought the idea could be transferred north. That led to the creation of a 501C3 charitable organization called the “Walls of Wittenberg.” The organization raises money to fund mural projects and artist’s fees. 

To date, over 30 murals have been created by artists invited to participate.  “We get a good variety of artists,” said Elaine Diffor, vice president of the Walls project.  “It’s fun meeting them.”

One of the most popular is the long mural depicting Green Bay Packer history on the side of the supermarket. It was designed by Packer fans, was approved by the Packer organization, and took over a year to create.  Diffor says it’s the site of tailgate parties before Packer games during the football season.

Another favorite is a “trompe-l’oeil” mural of a building. The phrase is French, meaning “to deceive the eye” and makes the image appear to be three-dimensional.

Have the murals served their tourism purpose? Yes, promoters say. Bus tours and visitors come into town especially to pick up a brochure and map and walk the downtown looking at the designs. 

More to come?

“I’ve always thought the support and infrastructure that Wausau has for the arts is impressive for a city of its size,” says Pataconi, citing the Woodson Art Museum, Center for Visual Arts, Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, Grand Theater, Performing Arts Center, and Wausau Conservatory.  

“It is fantastic to see city leaders, officials, and community organizations embracing this and adding to it with the downtown developments and recent murals.  We need to celebrate this in our community and have an awareness of how special it makes Wausau.  Involving students and residents in their creation provides a sense of ownership, responsibility, and place that will hopefully encourage people to care about and stay in our city.”   

Adds Marks, “Art is one of those constants. No matter what is going on in the world, art endures.”