A new mural inside the lobby of the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris building highlights the couple’s lasting legacy in Cedar Rapids.
The Linn County Public Art Commission began its search for artists in early 2020. Commission chair Sean Ulmer told Little Village then that the artwork could have references to the Harris family or the functions in the building.
The building’s namesakes were civil rights pioneers and deeply involved in the community. Dr. Percy Harris was the first Black physician in Cedar Rapids. Lileah Harris was a painter, poet, pianist and singer, as well as an advocate for lifelong learning.
The couple’s home was added to the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year, almost 60 years after the family challenged discriminatory housing practices to create that home. The home remains in the Harris family.
The Harris building opened in late 2019 and houses Linn County Public Health and Child and Youth Development Services.
A year and a half later, the mural was painted and installed by Minneapolis artists Greta McLain, Jacqui Rosenbush and Kendra Kallevig of GoodSpace Murals. The three artists, who were selected out of 200 proposals, and also helped create the George Floyd mural in Minneapolis.
“Basically what we’re doing is creating a piece that hopefully captures the feel or the essence of what we want the building to do and the legacy of the Harris family,” McLain told KGAN.
The painted mural also includes elements made out of porcelain and glass mosaic tiles that the public helped create and assemble.
The county explained the artists’ concept and meaning for the mural in a news release earlier this month. The art project “combines ideas of community, play, harmony and service interacting to create a sustainable, supportive and equitable space for all members of the community.”
At the center of the design is a large tree, which represents community, history and new growth. The monarchs and swallowtail butterflies represent transformation, joy and hope, as well as the need for sustainable practices.
“I think that there’s something so beautiful in the mosaic, in representing the community,” McLain told the Gazette. “You need every single piece in order to make that bigger picture, that bigger vision. Everybody is invited, everybody is vital to the definition to what is the Cedar Rapids community. If you live here you are a part of this, you are counted. And I think a mosaic visually represents that idea.”
The artwork at the Harris Building isn’t the only new mural brightening Cedar Rapids.
“We Are CR” was one of the slogans people chanted last summer as they marched through Cedar Rapids to protest police violence and racism after the killing of George Floyd.
Now, the message is prominently painted on a mural in the city’s downtown area. Artists Thomas Clark and Chad Dozeinear worked with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance to turn the mural from a vision to reality.
The mural was painted on the wall of the AdCraft building that faces 3rd Street SE. The blue and yellow background is bordered by red roses and includes downtown buildings in the middle, including the Tree of Five Seasons sculpture. The downtown scene is surrounded by two hands that form a heart.
A purple banner reading “We Are CR” is at the top.
The mural will eventually have light fixtures included to be illuminated in the evening, according to the Economic Alliance.
“I’ve grown up here, and it’s great to have this sense of achievement for Cedar Rapids,” Clark told the Economic Alliance. “We want everyone to feel included with this mural. Cedar Rapids is made up of all facets, and if we work together, we can have the heart made by the hands really come together, and we will all blossom and grow.”
A third new mural celebrate the importance of immigration to Cedar Rapids history.
The Czech Village/New Bohemia District put out a call for proposals earlier this year looking for a mural project that would capture the legacy and culture of the New Bohemia neighborhood.
The large and colorful mural on the Ideal Social Hall’s west wall was painted this summer. The artwork was created by Cedar Falls artist Gary Kelly and pained by Johnson County muralists Ali Hval and Thomas Agran, according to the district.
The mural was inspired by the immigrants who settled in the area decades ago.
The T.M Sinclair meatpacking plant brought Bohemian immigrants to the area in the late 1800s, creating a large Czech settlement in the city. In the early 1900s, the City of Cedar Rapids designated the area to the north of what is now New Bohemia as a manufacturing district. Cedar Rapids was a “melting pot” of Czech, Russian, Lebanese and Italian immigrants.
This history is carried on through the local restaurants, shops and entertainment in the Czech Village and New Bohemia neighborhoods. The two areas are recognized by the state as an Iowa Cultural District, and New Bo is one of Cedar Rapids’ seven National Historic Districts.