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UNG students painting murals on dreary public housing project walls
University of North Georgia art student Melanie Mitchell paints a tree on a large wall Wednesday morning at Melrose Apartments with help from a group of youths. Mitchell and fellow art student Michelle Vatral are working along with the Gainesville Housing Authority on the project.

Motorists and passersby at Pearl Nix and Queen City Parkway can’t help but see two University of North Georgia art students busy making the bland look beautiful.

The two artists have been driving 40 minutes from Dahlonega where they attend UNG to what has become their very own outdoor studio at the public housing complex called Melrose Community Apartments at the 800 block of Davis Street in Gainesville.

Melanie Mitchell and Michelle Vatral, both 21, have been undertaking the very public artwork since the end of May. Their mission: paint colorful and fanciful murals on the face of two faded gray walls buffering the apartments from traffic on the busy thoroughfares.

The UNG seniors, and friends, say the walls make a perfect canvas.

Jim Chapman, special projects coordinator at the Gainesville Housing Authority, and a former UNG art professor, would like to see the line of walls at the public housing complex — 1,000-feet long and averaging 10-feet tall — covered completely in art. He said it is part of an initiative of the 2030 Public Art Committee.

Chapman said the goal is to have art clubs and artists in the area join in and continue the artwork begun by Mitchell and Vatral.

“We have plenty of canvas and we have great artists here,” Chapman said.

It is Chapman’s hope that the community art will not only cover the dull and dreary wall, but also inspire those living in public housing to “dream your way to a better life.”

In planning their murals, Mitchell and Vatral said they held brainstorming meetings with kids and grownups at Melrose. They have incorporated in their artwork suggestions from those meetings.

“We asked them, ‘what does community mean to you?’” Mitchell said. “‘What does family mean to you? What does Gainesville mean to you?’”

To some observers, one of the murals appears to depict a sunrise (although others say it’s a sunset) with hues of yellow, red and orange glowing over Lake Lanier surrounded by lush green landscape.

The other mural appears to depict nightfall over the city. The artists are incorporating some familiar sights in Gainesville — the white pedestrian bridge spanning Jesse Jewell Parkway and the silhouette of an elephant (the Gainesville High School mascot) towering over the city.

“We really want to be able to not only be role models for these kids as strong women who are going to college and doing internships, but also show them that their dreams are achievable,” Vatral said.

Mitchell agreed.

“A lot of kids, they don’t try things,” she said. “They get stuck. If you push them a little, and you give them a project to do, it’ll open their eyes.”

The UNG students plan to hold a party Aug. 2 with balloons, food and music to officially turn over their murals to the community. The fun begins at 2 p.m.