You can see their work everywhere. Headed by Mary Thiefels of TreeTown Murals, the Novemberistas— a rotating cast of professional artists with huge gloves gripping delicate brushes–swarmed the sidewalks of Ann Arbor and spent the past month decorating the windows of more than 125 local businesses for the holiday season.
John Copley had been painting winter scenes on windows downtown for years when Thiefels became his assistant in 2011. He taught her the old-school lettering and design techniques and she started managing the business under TreeTown Murals four years ago. This year the group became its own entity— the Novemberistas.
Chloe Di Blassio, a junior at Community High School, started working with the Novemberistas last year. “The hardest part is getting the snowflakes to be symmetrical,” she says. “And the cold! Gloves are a must.”
Di Blassio feels like the experience has given her a whole new perspective on community art. “It opened up the scope of what being an artist in a community can be,” she says. “Something like this would never have occurred to me. That’s something that [Thiefels] does really well— she’s made her art an integral part of Ann Arbor.”
Art that’s alive and in the moment
Thiefels loves that community aspect of her work. “Half our job is to interact with people on the street,” she explains. “Usually you see the artwork, but you don’t see how it’s done. Outside, we’re vulnerable, and I think that’s what creates the synergy.” Thiefels likes to keep the decorations winter-themed, and as inclusive as possible, but she doesn’t necessarily want to paint the same-old same-old. “Who needs to paint Santa?” she jokes.
The two artists agree on what other Michigan towns can do to encourage local art: “Become a place where creativity has a space, where artists have room to express themselves in connection with the community,” Di Blassio says. “I’m doing an art class at UM right now, and it would be really cool if high schools encouraged that more.”
Thiefels adds, “You have to lean on the different commerce associations, or the city, to help inspire it. One of the reasons this became so successful was because the Main Street Area Association was willing to help pay the professional artists. They saw it as an opportunity to bring the community together for the holidays.”
Expanding beyond Ann Arbor
Thiefels has plans to scale the Novemberistas to a point where they bring their techniques to cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. “We’ve learned skills from John [Copley] that aren’t being taught any more,” she says, “the hand-lettering connected to the old-school letterheads, before computers came in. It’s a seriously marketable skill that’s fallen to the wayside, and he’s taught us to appreciate that old-school way of drawing and painting.”
She adds that any artist who wants to get involved should definitely count on wearing those thick gloves. “We’re total diehards,” she says. “This is not for the weak.”
Businesses interested in having their windows painted, or artists interested in getting involved should visit treetownmurals.com.