GILLETTE — Standing two steps up on an 8-foot ladder, face-to-face with white paint strokes beginning to form the head of a buffalo, Hannah Mooney stood where she stood for the better part of the summer, focused and facing the wall turned canvas turned mural on the front of the AVA Community Art Center.
Just days before the finished mural, named “Miss Wyoming,” debuted at the community center’s Summer Bash last Thursday, she was busy putting the finishing touches on the project that began in June.
A long process, sure, but not one that she navigated alone.
Through a nearly two-decade partnership between AVA and the YES House, Mooney had a cadre of young assistants work with her to encapsulate the western experience, indigenous roots and feminine spirit of Wyoming, as embodied by the large display consuming the side of the community art center.
Throughout the summer, students lent her a hand on everything from thinking out the mural’s concept to putting paint on the wall.
“My brain was thinking so differently,” Mooney said. “The way I would start a mural and do it step-by-step would be different if it didn’t have probably 15 to 30 other kids.”
Together they wracked their brains for ideas and themes of what Wyoming meant to them. They painted the wall all white then put words to it. They wrote what their intentions were, including how they wanted it to affect the community, their friends who saw it and the people they know.
Underneath the now colorfully splashed wall, is that blueprint they worked from: Words as symbols that they turned into lasting images enshrined in the community.
“We didn’t put too much structure into it,” she said. “Especially coming into our last few weeks. I just told them, like, ‘hey, it’s OK to get messy.’”
By looking at the finished product, you could never tell.
In the foreground, a large image of a woman with Native American inspired clothing tilts her hat down over her face. Above, the sun melts over a range of snow-capped mountains into a flowing body of water. There are fish and buffalo and bright colors that simultaneously one-up each other while balancing perfectly. The dark shadows cutting between colors give the piece depth, while grounding it in reality.
“It’s really what we’re trying to do, to give kids an opportunity they never had before and see if they would be interested,” said Tatyana Walker, development director for the YES House, “to engage in the world of imagination and the world that makes them happy.”
That’s the world that Mooney lives in.
After graduating from Campbell County High School in 2017, she embarked on a journey that led her to California then Australia before eventually finding her way back home. All the while, she honed her craft and painted her way around the world, developing a warm-colored and swirling-stroked aesthetic, which Quinn Goldhammer, director of AVA, described as Mooney’s signature style.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I wasn’t painting,” Mooney said. “I think I’d be a bit lost. I love working hard. I don’t mind the long hours and just getting a job done. I think my soul needs it. It’s in my DNA at this point.”
Before they could paint it, they had to scrape it.
In almost Mr. Miyagi-like fashion, the students had to chip away at the old paint and completely clean the canvas before making any brushstrokes themselves. The motions used to peel paint and paint paint are very different, but the discipline required for both, just as Daniel-san in “The Karate Kid” once learned, is surprisingly similar.
For the first week or two of the project, the students showed up and got to work peeling away at the former display, clearing and preparing the final space for their own creative visions.
“We stripped it completely and they were such troopers about it,” Mooney said. “A few of us, we had blisters on our hands. It was pretty crazy.”
In fact, the students weren’t exactly pleased with how the start of their summer art project seemingly had nothing to do with art.
“They were not happy about that,” said Paul Utzman, a teacher at the YES House. “That was a frustrating part of it.”
But as the students continued to clear the way for their mural — then began brainstorming ideas that ultimately materialized vibrantly on the wall — they learned to appreciate the process and their finished work.
“For them not to give up, to persevere and see it through made them more proud of it,” he said.
Once cleared away, Mooney said she had the students write words on the wall, ideas for what they wanted to symbolize and share with the community.
Those words led to the images displayed in the mural, from the mountains to the water to the woman at the center of it all.
“I feel like I lucked out pretty hard to get to work with them,” Mooney said. “It’s fun doing things by yourself, but the kids added so much spice to it. They’re pretty honest and blunt about everything so it makes things a lot more fun, they’re a little more raw with everything.”
Gathered around the mural, they would “bump tunes” and listen to the musician Juice WRLD, eat ice cream and share their thoughts on what the mural, and Wyoming, should mean. Those talks sometimes touched on the meanings of words like “community,” and “love” and “healing” as they shared their thoughts and developed themes for their collective art project.
But then again, sometimes the kids just wanted to goof off and put paint on their own shoes.
She remembers one day, while working on the mural with a couple of the students, she noticed some of their paint was missing. When she looked behind her, the rest of the students were on the grass, applying the various colors to their hats and footwear.
“I was like, at least they’re painting,” she said. “That’s pretty cool. At least they’re being creative in some way. It’s OK if they don’t want to paint this, but at least they’re being creative in however they want to.”
Just because the YES House students found themselves with brushes in hand doesn’t mean they were all artistically inclined.
At first, Mooney said that some talked about, “Oh, I can only draw stick figures” or made other excuses why they couldn’t help. That attitude and those refrains, at one time, were things she related to herself.
“I hear those same things that I used to say,” Mooney said. “It’s interesting, because I used to be there, too.”
Even though she can’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t paint, she does remember a time in life where her relationship to art passed the threshold from love to hate. As a teenager, she said she considered giving it up all together.
“I just hated art class,” she said. “I would never put it on the teachers or anything like that, but the experience was very structured. It wasn’t very expressive, it was like you’re just going there to get a good grade.”
But then, while at Campbell County High School, she met art teachers who helped her cut through the structure and get back to the core of what drew her to art in the first place.
She remembered the way her teachers took angst-filled high school students under their wings and changed the language of art into a way that resonated. Art isn’t limited to just painting or drawing. It’s cooking, and music, and style and conversation and life.
“We are forms of art, our life is art,” Mooney said. “We get to create our lives daily. This is just like the surface layer of art. The real art is our life.”
Using the methods she learned from her own mentors, with hints of her own patience and warmth, she hopes to have changed the language and framework of art for some of the YES House students she got to know over the course of the summer.
“I do feel really honored to hear their hearts and stories too,” Mooney said. “I think at such a young age, it’s such an important and vital time for them to understand who they are, their purpose. They are worthy of things much bigger than themselves too. It was so cool getting to work on this with them.”
Whether or not they stick with art is impossible to know now. But for as long as those students stay in Gillette, they will always remember the time and passion that went into creating that big blue mural every time they pass it by on Second Street.