Odds are, if you travel through Brooklyn, N.Y., you’ll see some of Harrisburg-native Ian Potter’s artwork—it’s hard to miss.
Although his name suggests a different type of art, Potter is a painter. Much of his time is spent on ladders, lifts and platforms against Brooklyn buildings. He works for Colossal Media, a mural company that hand paints advertisements for brands like Nike, Spotify, Amazon and Coca Cola.
Colossal is, as its name suggests, huge, and Potter is one of their top painters.
But before he was scaling walls in Brooklyn, assisting with the hundreds of murals that Colossal completes each year, Potter got his start at Gamut Theatre in Harrisburg.
This summer, he made the trip to Harrisburg to give back to the community that gave him his start. Potter, along with a team of local apprentices, painted Sprocket Mural Works’ largest mural yet, on the Mulberry Street Bridge in Harrisburg, as part of the 2021 Harrisburg Mural Festival.
While the mural itself is sprawling, the story of collaboration and education behind its creation may be even more inspiring.
Investing in Local
The Mulberry Street Bridge, which connects downtown Harrisburg to Allison Hill, once held a mural spanning 640 feet, picturing scenes of life in the city.
However, in 2014, PennDOT removed the mural to rehabilitate the bridge. Since then, the bridge has sat as an empty canvas—until this summer, when Sprocket got its hands on it.
Sprocket hopes it has brought life back to the bridge through a new mural recently completed, sponsored by M&T Bank and the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, with grant funding from The Foundation for Enhancing Communities (TFEC).
The mural features larger-than-life portraits of actual Harrisburg residents amidst swirling colors. As cars drive by, they see an elderly woman, a mother and child, a smiling man, a woman with fiery red hair—all members of the community, maybe even a familiar face.
“We wanted to really re-create the beauty of that project,” said Meg Caruso, co-founder of Sprocket, referring to the previous mural that was on the bridge. “It’s definitely exciting because it’s our biggest project yet.”
But Caruso said that her favorite part of creating the mural was utilizing the talent of local artists who worked as apprentices under Potter’s guidance.
While apprentices Sharnee Burnett, Kwatei Hector, Bryan Hickman and Jonathan Molina all have experience in art, none have worked on large-scale murals, Caruso said.
“To have a mentor like Ian, it’s really valuable to their growth and to Harrisburg, really,” Caruso said. “It means that, for future projects, we can pull from more local artists.”
Kwatei “Q” Hector, an artist from Allison Hill, has been drawing since he was a kid and has held some exhibitions, but never worked on a mural project.
This summer, he participated in Sprocket’s planter painting project in Allison Hill. Recognizing his potential, Caruso offered him the apprenticeship with Potter.
Hector loved seeing how his painted planter positively impacted his neighborhood and couldn’t wait to be part of another beautification project, he said.
“I’m grateful they’re beautifying the city and letting me be a part of it,” he said. “It’s a blessing to me.”
Hector said that Potter has taught him techniques including using an electro pounce machine, a pen that burns tiny holes onto a large sheet of paper to create a stencil to use when creating the mural. He then learned about “pouncing,” in which an artist taps a bag of charcoal powder over the holes in the stencil to transfer the outline of an image onto a wall. This is the first time that Sprocket has used these methods for a mural in Harrisburg, Caruso said.
Potter has also coached Hector as he’s worked on painting the portraits of the residents.
“Ian has a really beautiful ability to teach,” Caruso said.
While Potter is a mentor to artists now, he remembers being an apprentice himself.
In the early 2000s, Gamut Theatre hired him out of college as an actor and set designer. He would, almost singlehandedly, design, build and paint sets for the theater that often features plays by William Shakespeare, among others.
Judd “Pop” Nicholson, the father of Gamut-co-founder Clark Nicholson, was Potter’s mentor at the theater. With his experience as an old-school sign painter, before vinyl billboards replaced hand-painted ads, Judd taught Potter how to paint lifelike scenery.
“If I would make a mistake, he would be like ‘don’t worry about it; no matter what anyone tells you, you can paint,’” Potter said. “It stuck with me and propels me forward. It just so happened that, years later, I would become the modern-day equivalent of a sign painter.”
Judd taught Potter the methodology of painting, but most importantly, Potter said, at Gamut, he learned how to have a strong work ethic.
It’s this idea that he tried to pass onto his apprentices with Sprocket.
“It’s so cool to bring back some of that skill and knowledge,” Potter said. “This project is about lifting up our local artists in Harrisburg.”
While Caruso said that Sprocket is always trying to find ways to use the talents of local artists for its projects, they’ve especially focused their efforts this year, she said. That has shown through projects like the planter painting in Allison Hill, a mural painted by Harrisburg artist Sarah Fogg in Penbrook and the Mulberry Street Bridge mural, among others.
“There’s so much value in supporting local,” Caruso said. “We want to support our local artists.”
To learn more about Sprocket Mural Works, visit www.sprocketmuralworks.com.
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