What was once a drab concrete wall at the corner of 10th and Fanning Streets next to the DREAMS of Wilmington building on the city’s north side has been transformed into an urban jungle of sorts.
Thanks to nearly a thousand volunteers from all aspects of the community, the 240-foot wall was transformed into the “Forest of DREAMS,” a mural of colorful creatures set against an exotic background.
The animals range from butterflies and frogs to eagles and sharks and “many, many lions,” in the words of Janna Robertson, a professor at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington’s Watson College of Education who spearheaded the project.
“We wanted to beautify an area of town that was kind of forgotten,” said Robertson, noting that it was fitting to paint a mural near DREAMS, which aims to reach at-risk youth through arts programs.
The project was fully funded through sponsorships, with each creature costing $50 for paint and supplies (or in-kind donations). A wide range of organizations, businesses and schools such as DC Virgo Middle School, the Blue Ribbon Commission, the Plantation Village Retirement Center, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Live Oak Bank and the New Hanover County PTA, as well as individual and anonymous donors, sponsored more than 75 creatures. They were designed and painted with the help of local artists such as Toccara Bellamy and her son, Jemerit.
“All of the organizations were more than willing to help and donate. They were grateful to be a part of such a community project,” Robertson said. “It went beyond what I could have ever imagined.”
Painting on the wall began in early March, and over the course of several weekends, the forest came to life. According to Robertson, several people who stopped by to check out the action and had no initial intention to paint ended up coming back on multiple days to help out however they could. Even some elected leaders stopped by to help with the beautification.
The project also allowed Robertson, who is a co-coordinator of UNCW’s Dropout Prevention Coalition, and some of her students to research the impacts of service learning through interviews and a documentary about the mural.
On Tuesday night, another documentary on the “Forest of DREAMS” was shown before Wilmington City Council. This one was made by New Hanover High School senior Sarah Shapiro as part of a service learning project for one of her classes.
“I made a documentary last year on women in education, and so my teacher thought this would be a good fit for me,” Shapiro said of her pairing with the project. “I just kind of did it for my class, but it ended up being a bigger experience for me than that.”
Shapiro, who got an A on the project, also spent time painting and helping out while learning about teamwork and community building along the way.
“It was really special for me, especially since I’m moving away, to be able to leave that mark on the community,” said Shapiro, who will be attending the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill in the fall. “I got to work and connect with so many people in the community that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It was a really introspective and great learning experience for me.”
The work of Shapiro and the other volunteers will be celebrated Saturday during the mural’s official unveiling, which starts at 2 p.m. According to Robertson, there will be activities such as a scavenger hunt as well as the revealing of a surprise addition that she herself worked on. There will also be live music at 3 p.m. and a pizza party.
“We’re really excited about this project and really proud of all the work that everyone put into it,” Robertson said. “It was truly a team and community effort. The neighbors have especially been great. I’m best friends with so many of these people now, and I just met them through working on the mural.”
Though she’s been around for the duration of the project, Shapiro might not be present for the unveiling as she has a prior commitment: her high school graduation ceremony.
“I’m going to try my best to make it Saturday,” she said. “It was awesome to be a part of it.”
For more information on the “Forest of DREAMS” mural, visit their website.