Mark Piotrowski & Jazz Benitez

Prologue: The Midland Area Community Foundation believes art connects us, provides a sense of place, and provides long-term transformation. Our initiative, Public Arts Midland, supports ongoing work to amplify, support, and add art to the Midland community.

A coffee chat with Mark Piotrowski & Jazz Benitez, by Renee’ Deckrow

I’m sitting with Public Arts Muralists Jazz Benitez and Mark Piotrowski, and they’re sharing favorite quotes that illustrate their thoughts on art and life. 

“I love the quote by Elisabeth Gilbert, ‘Create the things you wish existed,” says Jazz Benitez.

“And I’ve always appreciated the sentiment behind Chuck Close’s statement, ‘Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself,” shares Mark Piotrowski.  

Both Mark & Jazz agree on this sentiment, “Follow your passion and do what you love.”  We are so glad they have both leaned into these ideals in a very tangible way and did “the work itself.”  So many of the “forgotten and overlooked” spaces in our community have been given new life, beauty, and whimsy with vibrant murals thanks to Mark and Jazz following their passions.  

Mark Piotrowski, an Art Educator for Bay City Public Schools, has a BAE from Eastern Michigan University and an MFA from Minneapolis College of Art. I first met Mark after joining Public Arts Midland in 2017.  Public Arts Midland, an initiative of the Midland Area Community Foundation, had just commissioned Mark to create colorful & joyful murals under the US Business 10 overpass on South Saginaw Road. The hope was to inject beauty and meaning into a forgotten and unlovely place.  I was immediately drawn by Mark’s use of color and movement in his work. So when I also decided to commission a large-scale mural for our newly acquired building in Midtown, I knew he was the muralist who would best convey one of my favorite quotes by Mother Teresa: “I alone cannot change the world, but can cast a single stone to create a ripple effect.” 

Mark muses, “Our daily experiences affect how we interpret the world and the people around us. We are constantly being shifted by our situations. When we encounter these moments, we are the same being, altered in a slight or monumental way. Sometimes, what we see, and experience isn’t exactly what we think we have seen.  

My work is inspired by that kind of shift. Everything we go through daily as people, be it joyous or disappointing news, we are a community that is trying to look on the brighter side. To peer into the cracks and question where this line will lead. My work seeks to represent this vision. Our relationships with our loved ones, friends, family, and the environment surrounding us are the bright colors of our lives. This is to be celebrated, thanked time and time again.  I look for inspiration that is close to the heart and the home. I am grateful to be able to create, love, and breathe.”

“A community is a diverse group of people that come together to support one another. A strong community is made up of meaningful connections,” continues Mark.

And as Jazz, Mark, and I sit together, the connection, admiration, and gratitude are palpable.  While Mark has been doing murals for quite some time throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region through both personal and Foundation commissions, I can’t help but think what a catalyst his work was for our own community. Mark inspired both Jazz and me, and his work has been hugely impactful and has done so much to elevate the power and importance of public art for our community.

Through this connection, Jazz Benitez, graphic design student, Operations Manager at Live Oak Coffeehouse, and fur baby parent, was inspired by Mark to be brave and submit a design for a  Midland Area Youth Action Council commissioned mural to represent a theme of “Changing the world through philanthropy.”

Jazz admits, “I honestly really didn’t know how to create that. But thought about how I wanted to design a concept with the overall vision portraying how the changing world of technology, our planet, and simple things can work hand in hand with philanthropy. Changing the world one small thing at a time through the simple things we do.” 

In 2018, Jazz was chosen to develop this idea on Circle Auto Parts’s large wall facing Business 10 between Patrick and Washington. Jazz describes this as “life-changing,” and as Jazz was painting this mural, community members from all over would stop by to bring words of encouragement, snacks and beverages, or would stop just out of curiosity and intrigue. Jazz would graciously invite community members to lend a hand by picking up a paintbrush and making their own mark on the shared artwork. Jazz remembers feeling such an awesome sense of camaraderie, joy, and excitement as everyone worked together toward creating something beautiful that anyone who travels by can enjoy that the idea of “Art Seen” was birthed.

Today, “Art Seen” is a festival that creates collaborative murals with a “paint by number” approach to the design so that anyone who comes can participate in creating these Public Art pieces.  The festival has grown to include music performances & food in a party-like atmosphere.  Their mission is: “Art Seen Festival seeks to strengthen our Midland County, Michigan, community through vibrant mural making and live performances. Accessible public art is a meaningful way to connect people to feel seen, heard, and included.  Art inspires us and propels us forward while bringing voice to diverse experiences and people. Art is a catalyst for belonging and supports a community where all people have the opportunity to thrive.”

Jazz goes on to share, “I think the community is not only the regular interactions you have on a daily and weekly basis; I think it’s in small moments with strangers and the kindness shared between you and another individual. I think the community is connected, no matter how short or long the time lasts. I think a strong community is built on acts of kindness and the willingness to show up for each other in the most authentic and kind versions of ourselves so that other people feel welcome to share their authentic versions.  The world inspires me, connections between humans, between us and our higher power, the conversations that happen in our heads, just life in its simplicity and vast complexities.”

To this point, we discuss why public art, specifically, can be such a powerful tool in fostering community, connection, and a sense of belonging. Public art’s unique offering is accessibility. It is artwork that you almost stumble upon just going about your day. I always love when I am in a new city, and I notice a pop of color peeking through buildings, almost always in areas of town that had formerly been abandoned. Public art allows us to “re-imagine the world as it should be.” It brings beauty, delight, and surprise to spaces that can easily be engaged with. Public art almost always invites interaction through features that invite an individual to become a part of the art. Public art in a community gives a sense of pride in place by creating recognizable landmarks. By involving local artists, public art encourages and promotes expression in a healthy way. As Public Art Midland’s mission statement says, “Public Arts Midland is a space to help people create connections through public art. We believe that art connects, heals, inspires, teaches, and speaks to us in myriad ways that build stronger and more vibrant communities.”

As we continue to chat, you can feel the electricity building as we each passionately speak about why we love art and how it can help others. We talk about our shared philosophy that “art is for everyone,” and I ask both Jazz and Mark to share what they want younger people to hear if they love art and want to learn more about how they can participate even if they don’t “feel” good enough yet.

Mark replies, “That’s challenging because I often get those feelings in students coming into my classroom. And somewhere along the way, as I go, I’m not an artist, or I can’t do this creative or trying to tap into the yes, you can do this and getting them to see that there are possibilities and breaking it down into smaller pieces. So instead of looking at something that’s very overwhelming, in the large sense, break that down into bite-sized chunks, and they can build up and put it together as they learn the new techniques. And I think that is one way to kind of combat the society kind of putting their thumbprint on people and opening up a world of possibility.”

I love the advice to break it down into bite-size pieces.  I think that is a metaphor for life and achieving any goal we aspire to.  

Jazz also shares, “It’s ok to be scared; it’s ok to be unsure, but don’t let that fear stop you from creating. Maybe someone told us that we weren’t good at it, or we compared ourselves to others, which is why we say we’re not good at it. We put so much pressure on the idea of doing creative things because it might be a waste of time if you’re not using it for financial means, but I think people should be allowed to create just for the sake of creating;  everybody is creative, and we all have creativity within us, and it’s just about finding what that specific medium is that will be the best outlet for our artistic journey and expression.  Lastly, I would encourage young people never to lose their sense of wonder.”

What a great reminder that we can take the pressure off and just create for the sake of creating; it can be a very therapeutic way to work through our ideas, thoughts, and emotions.

Great encouragement; thank you both!

“So, what is next?  What are you excited about?”

“I’m passionate about being more public Art to the surrounding Greater Lakes Bay Region.”, shares Mark.  With a cheesy grin, I add, “I hope you keep making your “Mark” on the world.”

We laugh, and Jazz wraps up our inspiring conversation with this insightful thought, “As far as passions go, I’m excited to keep diving deeper into public art in other spaces and learning how to experience life like I do my canvas, with grace, fun, and trial and error.” 

We are rooting for you both; thank you for all you do to bring stunning, interesting, and brilliant artwork to our community in a very approachable way. We see that it is no small feat to take a concept to a designed sketch and then convert it to a large scale on rough surfaces by painting on scaffolding in some of the hottest months of the year—a true labor of love. We see you. We thank you. We applaud your hard work and valuable contributions to illuminating our places and spaces with imaginative aesthetics.

Together, Forward, Bold…. We go!

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