Drivers heading into downtown Iron Mountain are greeted by a unique welcome sign: a colorful mural depicting local sights and activities made possible by the Power of Words Project.
The Power of Words Project was created by Mia Tavonatti, a professional artist originally from Iron Mountain. Her goal is to engage communities in the creative process to gain appreciation and support for the arts through the power of words and murals.
“A long time ago I figured out that the only way to build appreciation for the arts, and support for the arts, is to teach people about what it takes to create,” Tavonatti said.
Tavonatti tries to engage the community in as much of the process as she can, including allowing them to choose the word that inspires the mural. She asks them, “If you could choose one word that defines your vision for the future of your community what would it be?” The answers are collected online, and through paper ballot, then narrowed down to about 10 words for a final vote.
Once the word is chosen Tavonatti creates the design and gathers a team who work with her for three to four weeks to complete the mural. The team is usually made up of about three of her professional artists, three to nine local students and two to six local artists. The local students and artists who apply are then rewarded with scholarships and grants for their work.
The Power of Words Project originated in Laguna Beach, California, in 2012. While Tavonatti was teaching at the Laguna College of Art and Design she and her students replaced a local damaged mural, successfully launching the Power of Words Project.
In 2013, the Iron Mountain Downtown Development Authority contacted Tavonatti to create some art for her hometown, and the project was brought to the Upper Peninsula with the Believe wall on Blackstone Pizza Company.
Mark McKinnon, one of the owners of Blackstone Pizza Company, was enthusiastic about the project when he was contacted for permission to use his building’s wall.
“I just thought it was an incredibly neat idea,” he said. “I knew plenty about the level of her talent, and I just thought, ‘Well this is going to be pretty neat for the community.’”
Tavonatti returned to Iron Mountain in 2017 to paint a second mural. This time the chosen word was “community,” and the final product was made up of 89 portraits of people from the community chosen by the community.
After the Community wall, Tavonatti and the Power of Words Project received a grant through the Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Regional Commission to further the project. She then created three more murals in Iron Mountain and one in Manistique.
The rest of the funds from the CUPPAD grant combined with donations of over $20,000 and a $20,000 matching grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will go towards the expansion of the project this summer in Manistique, Gladstone and Marquette.
Voting is closed for all three of the 2019 murals. Tavonatti is expecting to be working on the mural in Manistique during July, Gladstone during August and Marquette from the end of August to September 17.
Tavonatti calls the murals “mural mantras” because every time someone sees the mural the word sinks in deeper to cause positive change over the long term. Thus inspiring the people in the community and working to revitalize the area.
“We’re calling the U.P. version of the Power of Words Project UPlift,” Tavonatti said. “And that’s what it’s all about. It’s about uplifting the U.P. with the transformative power of art and words.”
As far as further expansion of the project goes, Tavonatti has hopes to expand throughout the Upper Peninsula and form tours around the murals to drive cultural tourism. However, she is unsure of how or when that may happen.
“I have no idea at this moment because by the end of this year I will have exhausted all of my funds for what I have at the moment,” she said. “So we have to write new grants, we have to find new income streams . . . and that’s really what dictates it.”
Program Director for the Iron Mountain Downtown Development Authority, Paula Craven, has seen the positive effects of the murals and is interested in adding more provided they can obtain the funding.
“I think it has absolutely had an effect on our community,” Craven said. “I think it’s brought people downtown, and I think that it’s created a shared experience for people.”