Kang Song, Y. I. & Gammel, J. A. (2011). Ecological mural as community reconnection. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 30, 266–278.


This phenomenological case study documents the Mystic River mural project in the Boston suburb community of Somerville. The researchers collected data during the summer 2009 development of a panel for the mural. They found that the mural catalyzed skill development, collaboration between diverse community members, and a concern about the environment.

Key Findings:

  • The mural project impacted the community by aesthetically improving the area, reconnecting community members with the river, and bringing environmental issues to the forefront. In the 1960s, a highway and large, concrete barrier were built between the low-income neighborhood and Mystic River. The mural, painted on the barrier, encouraged community members to spend time at the river and addressed environmental concerns.
  • The shared experience of the mural brought community members from different backgrounds together. Muralists, high school students, and other community members created the panel and referenced their own experiences in their artwork. Community members not directly involved supported efforts by bringing ethnic food and playing traditional music during painting sessions. Various community members reported that they changed their perspectives and stereotypes because of the project.
  • High school participants gained field investigation skills through their visits to Mystic River to take observational notes of animals. Mural participants strengthened their presentation, negotiation, and math skills. Participants developed a variety of artistic skills and knowledge—such as perspective, color mixing, glazing, and aesthetic understanding—through their work with the muralists.

Significance of the Findings:

The Mystic River mural project can provide an example of how a community can come together and address civic concerns using public art.


The researchers employed a phenomenological case study approach to study the production of the Mystic River mural in the Boston suburb of Somerville. They collected data through observations, reviewing relevant information and literature, and interviews. The mural project began in 1996, with new panels added each summer. The researchers focused on the summer 2009 panel creation process and interviewed a local muralist, members of the Somerville arts council, 56 community members, and 11 amateur and professional muralists from across the country.

Limitations of the Research:

The findings are drawn from one summer of work on the mural. Findings could be strengthened through data collected across multiple summers to see what common themes emerge across multiple time periods. This approach would highlight trends that are more likely common to the project itself and not just contextual factors of the particular summer a panel was produced.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What contextual factors are necessary for a successful community mural project? What actions occur in the community in response to community murals with a specific focus?