New mural under Urbana’s Race Street bridge connects artist with community

URBANA — A new mural of concentric circles is adding a pop of color to the space beneath the bridges that carries Race Street over the Boneyard Creek in Urbana, thanks to local artist E. Ainsley.

Ainsley said she has been into art since she started tracing monster snowmen in “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strips as a child.

Being “local,” on the other hand, is a bit of a new concept for Ainsley, whose father’s position in the Air Force meant moving the family frequently.

“This is the most landlocked I’ve ever been,” Ainsley said. “I miss the ocean and the mountains, but I’ve found a way to relate to this environment by engaging with the plants and community.”

Ainsley is a multimedia artist with a penchant for three-dimensional work.

Recently, her focus has been on papermaking, especially at Fresh Press in Champaign.

It’s a very involved process: Artists at Fresh Press start with raw “ingredients” like prairie grasses, cooking them down before separating out the soft fibers and beating them into a pulp that can then be used to create paper.

Often, the next step is to press that pulp into thin sheets for writing paper, but Ainsley presses it into molds or forms it around structures to make sculptures.

“I think there’s something really important to relating to the world through your hands, whether it’s making art or making something like food and sharing it with people,” Ainsley said. Papermaking “is very satisfying to me, very versatile and very forgiving and it connects me with plants in a way that really resonates.”

Ainsley said this reminds her of her time as a farmer: growing a plant and then consuming it as art, rather than food.

After earning a master’s degree in sculpture from the University of Illinois, Ainsley was initially hesitant to settle into the area.

“I was really resistant to everything when I got here because I was in kind of a tough spot of being in transition,” Ainsley said. “I’ve had to open up to embracing everything that is being in the Midwest: the good and bad of being in a major agricultural space that used to be one of the most biodiverse regions in the entire world until the late 1800s.”

One thing that contributed to changing their mind: meeting fellow local artist Robert Chapman.

Chapman has been making paper for decades, but he reached out to Ainsley and expressed interest in sharing skills.

The two became friends and have been “nerding out on paper” ever since.

“That’s just a really amazing coincidence, and if I had gone to grad school and then just totally skipped town, I would’ve missed out on that,” Ainsley said.

She said she’s generally enjoyed anonymity, but isn’t sure why, because being a resource for people interested in art has turned out to be a positive experience.

That includes networking with artists across the country, not just in Champaign-Urbana, to share techniques and ideas.

In a professional sense, it also means teaching papermaking at Fresh Press and, starting next semester, teaching some art classes at the UI.

Papermaking and other three-dimensional art might be Ainsley’s priority, but she still thought Urbana Arts and Culture program specialist Vivian Krishnan’s offer of doing a mural under the Race Street bridge sounded cool.

The design is inspired by a pattern Ainsley has been incorporating in art for around 13 years: vibrant, concentric circles that stand out against a simple black background.

They’re a little reminiscent of ripples that would be created if you tossed something into the nearby Boneyard.

No two sets of circles are alike, but there’s a pattern to the order of colors across the group, if you pay close attention.

The painting process for the mural only took about a week and a half, hurried on by cold weather earlier this fall, Ainsley said.

Still, it gave her time to meet the people who use the bridge as shelter or the path as a daily walk — one more part of the community where Ainsley has decided to stay, for now.

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