East Lansing artist Dustin Hunt considers art a superpower. Luckily for the community, he’s decided to use his superpower for good.
His latest project, a new mural unveiled late September at the East Lansing Public Library (ELPL), reflects and honors people and moments of the civil rights movement. The canvas is intended to act as a living, breathing display of neighborhood culture and to reflect a complicated local history that is still an important part of present-day conversation.
Funded by the East Lansing Arts Commission through the Percent for Art Ordinance’s Public Art Fund, the mural is located on the west-facing exterior wall of the Maker Studio at the library, located at 950 Abbot Road.
The artwork utilizes bright, bold colors in shades of green, purple and blue, with eye-catching geometric shapes. The vibrant artwork reflects a colorful history of civil rights leaders, showing prominent local figures sitting together at a kitchen table.
The muralist brings a unique background to his work, including in art education.
While Hunt has a long history in the Lansing area, he was inspired to start his business Muralmatics while living in Portland, Ore., as a way to help students better understand pre-algebra.
Hunt said he uses elements of art to show tangible examples in his teaching, and saw increased student success. His work is inspired by his time spent as a hip hop DJ and graffiti artist.
“That led me to dream about large-scale mural projects that incorporated pre-algebra concepts in the preparation and execution of student-centered murals,” he said. “When I moved back to Lansing in 2018, I reconnected with friends working in the community to connect me to youth organizations and launched several pilot projects.
“As requests for commissioned murals increased, I developed a paid apprenticeship for emerging artists to provide them with hands-on learning opportunities while assisting me in the production of large-scale murals.”
Hunt, who has an art education degree from Michigan State University, intermixes pre-algebra lessons on ratios, pricing and measuring into art projects, including mural work.
Today, Muralmatics continues its mission to foster and restore young people’s creative confidence. The organization also works to highlight and amplify unique characteristics and assets of the neighborhoods where the artwork lives.
He’s worked closely with young, budding creatives via All of the Above Hip Hop Academy and has painted another East Lansing mural at 1024 E. Grand River Ave. That work is centered on regional planta and wildlife. Other Greater Lansing works include a Stevie Wonder mural in Old Town, just a few blocks from where the legendary musician attended the School of the Blind. The newest is located at the Temple Lofts in Old Town and highlights Mexican American heritage, with nods to local legacy businesses.
In 2019, Hunt also co-founded Below the Stacks, Lansing’s first-ever citywide mural festival, helping showcase highly acclaimed international street artists and promoting local creativity.
Hunt answered the call to create a mural for the East Lansing Public Library.
The artist became involved in the ELPL project in 2020, when the City of East Lansing put out a call to artists interested in creating a mural depicting East Lansing’s civil rights history and centered on BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) perspectives.
“I was one of four artists selected to create a design for the City,” Hunt said. “The City selected another artist in the end, while ELPL Director Kristin Shelley took interest in my design and proposed and gained support to bring the design to the ELPL.”
The 50-foot by 20-foot mural, titled “Kitchen Table Conversations,” was completed in August of this year. Hunt said the mural aims to honor and celebrate the ongoing work Black individuals and families are doing locally to ensure a more equitable future.
“Instead of celebrating singular icons and singular achievements, this mural aims to create a tapestry of shared and lived experiences, interrelated and ongoing, that touch upon progress and areas of improvement in relation to EL’s civil rights,” he said.
The subjects pictured in the mural are East Lansing High School’s former principal Andrew Wells, East Lansing K-12 alum Lillian Werbin, and members of the Shareef-Asante family.
Hunt is also in the process of creating a webpage for the mural to feature interviews with subjects, their perspectives of living in East Lansing and information on local civil rights history. A QR code placed next to the mural will take visitors to the website.
“Ralph Bonner Jr. will be featured on the web page as his father, Dr. Ralph Bonner, and family made a significant contribution to EL’s civil rights history,” Hunt said.
Hunt hopes the website can encourage local residents and visitors alike to learn a little bit more about their neighbors, friends and colleagues’ different perspectives, acting as a living history of sorts.
“Additionally, this mural aims to highlight the legacy of discriminatory aspects of EL’s history designed and upheld by white communities,” he said.
Lessons learned growing up in East Lansing add inspiration to the artist’s work.
Hunt’s own unique experience growing up in East Lansing helped shape his views and inspired the mural.
“Having attended elementary and middle school at Spartan Village and Hannah in the ‘90s, I was one of a few white students in my neighborhood and friend group,” he said. “My younger brother and I were welcomed into the rich and diverse cultural fabric of Spartan Village at a formative time in our lives.These experiences shaped our world view and inevitably became the seedlings for us to develop an anti-racist framework later in life.”
Hunt said the mural acknowledges East Lansing’s history of discrimination and the fact the area was a “sundown town.” The mural shows an open window with a sunset to express the city’s history of segregation by excluding non-whites through discriminatory practices.
He hopes the colorful, vibrant composition doesn’t mask the work that still needs to be done in the community when it comes to discrimination and priviledge.
“I hope viewers observe the ongoing work BIPOC communities endure to this day in a place that considers itself progressive,” he said. “I hope white folks consider their own privilege and ways to foster an anti-racist framework and contribute to ongoing civil rights struggles.”