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Painting Berlin: Wrapping up the first phases of the mural

The mural that’s bringing history and color to the side of the Berlin Visitor’s Center is well underway and deep into its third phase, thanks to a day spent painting at the summer’s annual Peach Festival. 

Stephanie Fowler, owner of Saltwater Media and secretary of the Berlin Arts and Entertainment Committee, wants the mural to be a chance for the entire community to come together and make their mark on a beautiful piece of Berlin culture.

“We’ve had kids at the local schools, town officials, tourists, business owners, all sorts of different people coming to put paint on it,” Fowler said. “So when these murals go up, it’s been a participatory kind of vibe from everyone in the town. We wanted the town to be part of the art. We wanted that community feel to the mural.”

The man behind the mural

Painting the mural
Artist John Donato (in the paint-splattered overalls) works with visitors at the Peach Festival to bring panel three of the mural to life. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Fowler. 

When the mural is finished, it will consist of five or six PVC panels mounted to the outside wall of the Visitor’s Center, panels that can be detached and reattached as needed to preserve the artwork. The first panel, or the first phase of the project, was painted by students at Buckingham Elementary School, who had a lesson in local history before taking to the panel to paint books about peaches, dairy farming and other key components of Berlin culture. 

The second phase involved kids, parents and counselors from the Worcester County Youth and Family Services, and the third was started at the Peach Festival on August 5. Mural artist John Donato, who is based out of Ocean View, DE, has been the mastermind behind the project. While the entire community is involved in the mural’s painting, it’s Donato who comes up with the overall design and outline, assists painters and puts the finishing touches on each panel.

“I don’t want to say it’s Paint by Numbers, but he basically gives a rough sketch of how it’s going to be, and then when the people come, he says, ‘take a paintbrush, pick a color, and do something in this area,'” Fowler said. “So he’ll have an outline of a book and then somebody can just paint into that. Once there’s enough paint on the mural, he goes behind it and traces with black, fills it in, straightens it.”

Mural section
“[John’s] murals are very fun, there’s a lot of stuff going on, every time I look at it I’m like, oh, look at this little detail,” Fowler said. “He’s really good at creating a mural that, every time you go up to it, you’re going to see something new.”
Donato specializes in murals like this one that involve a community effort–as Fowler put it, it’s not that they just “got money, paid a guy and he painted a mural.” And while the artist might be from Ocean View, not Berlin, he said there’s a closeness between the towns on Delmarva that makes him feel like a local. 

“They were looking for someone who did a lot of work with the community and somehow my name came to the top, and we seemed to be likely partners,” Donato said. “Part of the project I just became very involved with the schools, the culture, the events of Berlin, and over the course of time I came to understand the town from the perspective of someone who lives there.”

A communal affair

A painter fills in some of the lines drawn  by Donato. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Fowler. 

It’s not just Berlin residents and business owners who are invited to paint a piece of the mural, but tourists, even Berlin first-timers, are welcome to participate. 

“When we were painting at the Peach Festival, there was a lady with her grandkids who said, ‘the next time we come to town, we’ll come visit and you’ll see your butterfly,'” Fowler said. “So it was like, here’s a kid who has no connection, but when she comes back to this area, she’ll be able to point to this moment and say, ‘oh, I remember doing that.'”

The Arts and Entertainment Committee has been fundraising within the community to pay for the expenses that come with the project, which includes painting materials, paying the artist and the PVC panels that can cost up to $6,000 each. The project has received money from the town, Worcester County Arts and private donors, but because they partially rely on fundraising and grants, the project’s end date is tentative. 

“The mural is definitely a working project, it’s a labor of love and we’re doing it piece by piece, but we’re absolutely committed to the full thing,” Fowler said. 

Anyone interested in donating can do so online at Berlin Arts and Entertainment’s website, or in person at the Saltwater Media office in Berlin. 

So far, the pieces from the mural have reflected Berlin’s history, popular events and culture. The panels will continue to travel to local events and landmarks, and what themes emerge is partially dependent on where the panel is being painted and who it’s being painted by. 

“Because we’re adding new elements every time we paint a phase, we don’t know who the players are going to be,” Donato said. “We try to reach out to more people as we go along.”

The detachable element of the panels is essential to making the artwork accessible to the entire community.

“What’s cool is the panels are portable,” Fowler said. “So we can take it to the Peach Festival, we can take it to the Germantown School or the art room at Buckingham. Because it’s a panel, we can get more community involvement because we can take it to where the people are. I don’t know what we have in the works for panel four, we might have more events like bluegrass or different things.”

Mural painters
Margaret Tossey of Wooden Octopus and Helen Wiley of the Church Mouse are just two community members who came out to paint during the Peach Festival. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Fowler.

What’s next

On September 16, a panel of the mural will travel to Berlin’s historic Germantown School Community Heritage Center, a museum and community center that was once a schoolhouse for African American students in the early 20th century. At the event, there will be a potluck, musical entertainment and, of course, plenty of painting.  

While the panels have started to take on a seasonal theme, it’s likely that the upcoming phases will present more information on the town of Berlin’s formation and history.

“We take it as we go, but there is the theme of spring, summer, fall, winter and we’re in sort of the fall area now,” Donato said. “Since the Germantown School is involved in this one…there’s a lot of history about how this school changed hands and how it’s developed in the community.”

For locals and tourists alike, the mural is an educational opportunity that will ultimately present historical and cultural information that’s not totally well-known within the community. While each panel inevitably takes on a life of its own, they’ll all be united in that they present the town’s history, emphasized by Donato’s colorful and fun style of painting. 

“Berlin is a really special project because it is truly a community mural,” Donato said. “If you had to think of everything in a true community mural, the schools, the churches, the local leaders, the local businesses are all involved. Berlin definitely captures all of that.” 

Kristin is a writer and photographer in Ocean City, Maryland, and is the content manager for OceanCity.com and other State Ventures, LLC sites. She loves getting reader-submitted stories and photos, so send her an email anytime. She also works part-time at the Art League of Ocean City and the Ocean City Film Festival and lives just off the peninsula with her dog and fiancé. Her photos can be found on Instagram @oc_kristin.

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