Tia Richardson is an integrative community artist making an impact in Milwaukee

Tia Richardson describes herself as an “integrative community artist.” She works as a muralist, teacher, and bridge builder in Milwaukee, leading visual arts projects designed to help heal the community.

She has been drawing and painting since childhood, though she ultimately earned a degree in graphic design by default as the only option available at her college that had “remotely related to anything in art.” She worked full-time as a graphic designer until she was laid off in 2007, at which point she “stumbled into” teaching.

“I started teaching by doing mural residencies that weren’t too deeply embedded in the social realm other than being in a classroom,” she explains. “Ever since then I’ve been exploring more methods and practices I can do to work with young people, churches, and grassroots organizations to do community murals.”

While the transition into teaching would have otherwise been difficult for Richardson to make without a teaching degree, the Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization Arts @ Large has a roster of artists who partner with schools and do residencies. While doing temp work as a graphic designer, she was referred to Arts @ Large and was asked to put together a proposal for a classroom residency that would last a few weeks.

“The only thing I could think of was murals because of my painting background, but I didn’t have any teaching experience so I had to rely on other professionals to learn what residencies would look like. That’s how I got started teaching in classrooms.”

Richardson says when she first started she was focused mainly on the specific classroom topic for the mural, the design for which would be a collaborative effort based on input from all of the students, but she had previously had exposure to other avenues of healing and spaces of meditation and knew that restorative justice was something that inspired her. After awhile she began incorporating restorative practices like story circles and other art therapy rituals into her mural programs.

“We have circle processes and reflection time, a set format with an opening and closing that’s a kind of ritual,” Richardson explains. “I got really creative with that and found creative ways of getting groups of people, including adults without art backgrounds, to bring their stories in and determine how we as a group decide how our sketches will tell our stories together.”

She regularly attends conferences that teach and inspire her to find new ways to engage people and “bring people together around a common issue that may or may not be apparent at the beginning.”

Now she facilitates community-led murals, bookmaking, story-writing, and illustration programs for schools, churches, daycare centers, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations. All of her visual arts programming is built from a community-building framework – her “integrative community building,” as she calls it.

One mural project Richardson co-facilitated in 2013 examined growing up in Milwaukee within the context of experiencing racial segregation, and part of the process for creating this community mural was for people to share their stories of these experiences.

“We framed each series of questions – ‘How have you felt your city of Milwaukee has betrayed you? How do you heal?’ – then asked people to sketch, write, or draw a picture that represented an element from a story they shared. We found common threads and reflected them on the wall as a visual way to get people who aren’t artists to look at common threads and symbols. That’s the work we do together in the room. As an artist I take that feedback to identify common themes and put together a design that may or may not include some of their sketches that tells their stories.”

Richardson still works with Arts @ Large and has relationships with several community centers that service youth through daytime and after-school programs. She also works regularly with Milwaukee Center for Children and Youth, a social service agency that works with youth in the foster system. She runs six- to eight-week programs making personal books that focus on resilience and self-esteem through a first-person point of view that has the main character encountering various personal obstacles. “The story is designed to have them work through these obstacles and see all the caring that’s present if you just open your eyes and look.”

“My approach is very holistic,” she continues. “With each project that comes to me I try to integrate these therapeutic processes as much as I can. Sometimes I can’t; I’m limited by time in the classroom to only 45 minutes to do a lot of discussion. I like being out in the community; those projects are generally more open in terms of what I can do.”

She also enjoys working with people in the community who might not have had previous experience working with visual artists.

“They don’t always know what to expect working with an artist or what a process like this needs or entails, but I’ve always found a willingness to be open to these ideas,” says Richardson. “It’s an honor to get to work with clergy or the Executive Director of a nonprofit or the Program Director of [a neighborhood group].”

One such group, Southside Neighbors Helping Neighbors, had never worked with a public artist previously but wanted a mural to transform a vacant lot into something positive.

“They see the value they get,” she concludes. “As an artist I really have to be very patient and manage expectations, but I have been fortunate to have worked with people who want to work with an artist in this way. They’re happy I’m there and I feel very welcomed.”

CEX 5 Qs
(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I like collaborating with people who don’t consider themselves artists who want to come together to share something that’s important to them, even though they might not know what the end result will look or how they might be involved in the process.

(2) How do you a start a project?
A face-to-face consultation meeting in most cases is how a project gets started.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
I value the whole person. I establish working agreements with most groups at the beginning of the process and ask them to contribute to the working agreement. Listening and speaking from the heart is a big working agreement and listening without interrupting and using “I” statements are common circle agreements, not just for me but more importantly for each other and also for themselves.

(4) How do you define success?
Those agreements are critical to that because I feel like success is when people are saying they felt appreciated or they can notice one thing. If something resonated with them about the process that made them see things in a different way or made them open up a little, if I hear them self identify that, that’s successful. It’s more about how people are feeling overall at the end. If I feel like there’s a little more cohesion there at the end, that’s one of the greatest successes to me. That’s the ultimate measure of success for me.

(5) How do you fund your work?
The organizations that hire me have funds set aside or have grants already set for projects, or are in the process of getting grants.

Photo by Love Wisconsin