Maddie Olek has already found success in creating public artwork, and she hasn’t even graduated yet.  

Odds are you’ve seen some of Olek’s work — the mural outside The Hall CP, the storm drains around campus and a mural in LeFrak Hall were all made by the senior studio art major. She loves creating public art and exploring how her work can help shape the culture and character of a community.

Olek’s latest project is a commissioned mural on the side of a house in Washington, D.C. This new piece is not only one of her larger creations, but also incorporates a unique painting medium she’s never worked with before. After commissioning Olek, one of the house owner’s only requests was that the entire mural be made using special limestone paint.

This paint challenged Olek’s skill, forcing her to adapt to the chalky texture and small color range. This type of paint is normally used to cover entire surfaces and is not regularly used for artwork, but it offers environmental benefits, with the ability to absorb carbon dioxide and clean the air.  

“It was definitely a little bit frustrating,” Olek said. “[But] the environmental impact of it is pretty cool.”

Olek has been working on the mural for a few months after starting the initial research process in July. She began by exploring the neighborhood, looking to nearby architecture for inspiration and brainstorming her overall message. She decided to include the phrase, “love each other, take care of each other” as a reminder to the community.

Olek enlisted Jak Lunsford, also a senior studio art major, and Maria Soboleva, a University of Maryland alum, to help complete the mural. The trio met in a required class last year and started spray painting together.

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Olek’s passion for public artwork goes hand in hand with her creative placemaking minor. This recent addition to the university’s art curriculum explores the role of artists in improving public spaces and provoking conversations about important issues in the community. This is the first year the program was implemented, and Olek will be one of the first two studio art majors to graduate with the minor.

“Artists have an ability to think outside of the box, bring people together in interesting ways, create conversation,” said Ronit Eisenbach, an architecture professor and director of the creative placemaking minor.

Eisenbach said having Olek in her class has been a delight. Eisenbach was excited to learn about Olek’s commissioned mural piece and was intrigued by the unique painting medium. Eisenbach explained that this project aligns well with her goals for the creative placemaking minor — using art to improve the world.

[Olek’s] already confident enough to take the skills that she learned and the opportunity to make murals in the classes and to be doing her own mural is so exciting,” Eisenbach said.

Lunsford, who is also a creative placemaking minor, is passionate about public art and using non-traditional artistic methods to help uplift communities.

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“Academic minors are missing out,” Lunsford said. “It’s very grounding to work on stuff that’s not canvases.”

Lunsford finds fulfillment through all they’ve learned in the creative placemaking minor, focusing on the idea that they should be working “with the community, not for the community.” 

After months of hard work, the mural is almost complete. It was both a major accomplishment and a learning experience for Olek. 

“It’s one of the taller projects I’ve done,” Olek said. “I feel like it’s like a new personal record.”

Olek wants to continue on this path of pursuing public art projects and hopes to one day organize a community involved mural, involving locals with the brainstorming and painting.

“It’s kind of like civic work, civic art,” Olek said. She feels that this work allows her to “really connect with the community” and leave a lasting impression.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story’s photo caption misspelled Maddie Olek’s name. This story’s photo caption has been updated.