Johnson’s murals strengthen communities in Iowa and Ecuador

When Mike Johnson arrived at Cornell for his freshman year, he found himself at a campus mobilized for action. Nearby Cedar Rapids had just experienced a flood so massive that it ranked fifth on the nation’s list of worst natural disasters. Cornell, service-oriented and neighborly, called on its entire community to help.

Johnson made a beeline for volunteer duty—and never stopped.

Volunteer of the year

Mike Johnson in Ecuador
Mike Johnson’s mural project in Ecuador

By his sophomore year Johnson had earned Cornell’s volunteer of the year award, logging more than 300 hours of volunteer service, with 261 of those hours spent with the Cedar Rapids Downtown District. He had taught art lessons for Mount Vernon elementary school students, cooked lasagna for a homeless shelter dinner, and when asked to come up with an idea for one of downtown Cedar Rapids’ farmers markets, brightened the beleaguered city’s skyline with a 400-square-foot, professionally-commissioned mural titled “Bringing Downtown to Life.”

“I tell people it’s not about the hours. It’s about what we’re doing. I think people don’t realize how rewarding volunteering is. And then they do it and it’s sort of addictive,” Johnson said.

Addictive, perhaps. But it takes an impassioned person to maintain Johnson’s pace and level of achievement.

“When tasked to create an additional activity at the Downtown Farmers’ Market, we never dreamed that our intern would create a project of such a high quality. Because of Michael’s creativity, energy, persistence and desire to excel in everything he does, we now have a beautiful mural gracing the streets of downtown Cedar Rapids,” said Jill Wilkins, the Downtown District’s events director.

Community art as a career

Along the way, Johnson discovered a way to turn his addiction for service into a career for life. Johnson realized a keen interest in the interplay of art and politics. Now, he clearly sees a career in urban planning, specifically in the non-profit world.

“It’s fascinating to focus on how art and culture enhance a city,” said Johnson, whose mural project offered him front row and behind the scenes experience with the paperwork and the people skills needed to create a piece of public art.

Johnson wrote and landed a grant from the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, found a location and materials, commissioned an artist, and deftly balanced the input of a variety of city and civic leaders.

“He does everything to the 10th degree,” said Kara Trebil, Cornell’s director of civic engagement.

It’s just the start of Johnson’s career as an impassioned community art advocate. He’s active in the Cedar Rapids Mural Train Society, a group planning a series of murals throughout Cedar Rapids. And in the summer of 2011, Johnson traveled to Ecuador as a Cornell Fellow to help the community in a variety of ways, including portraying its history through large murals as part of an eco-tourism project.

“Who knows what may happen after I graduate, but at least now I have a more clear idea of what it is I’m passionate about and what I enjoy doing for work,” Johnson said.