This image represents the proposed design of Wendy Popko’s upcoming mural “Trailblazer.”

This image represents the proposed design of Wendy Popko’s upcoming mural “Trailblazer.”

Art by Wendy Popko, image provided by Sterling Heights


Paint and play to mix with AR-enhanced mural

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published April 20, 2021

 Wendy Popko, from Sterling Heights, plans to paint a mural on the exterior south wall of Ventimiglia Italian Foods in Sterling Heights. Popko is working with a company, BrandXR, to make the mural come alive via augmented reality and the Electrifly smartphone app.

Wendy Popko, from Sterling Heights, plans to paint a mural on the exterior south wall of Ventimiglia Italian Foods in Sterling Heights. Popko is working with a company, BrandXR, to make the mural come alive via augmented reality and the Electrifly smartphone app.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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STERLING HEIGHTS — A Sterling Heights muralist is ready to get moving on making a pioneering piece of interactive wall art.  

Resident Wendy Popko will be painting a recreation-themed mural called “Trailblazer.” According to the city’s proposal, Popko plans to start the mural this spring and work on it for eight to 12 weeks, for a July completion target. The Sterling Heights City Council unanimously voted April 6 to approve the mural project as part of its consent agenda.

The painting will go on a south wall belonging to Ventimiglia Italian Foods, which is along Dodge Park Road, near 15 Mile Road. The artwork is set to cover almost 800 square feet and will be covered under a five-year, $1 annual lease between the business and the city, with the possibility of monthly tenancy afterward.

The City Council’s proposal costs $21,600 in total and dispensed with a competitive-bidding process. Popko also sits as a member of the Sterling Heights Arts Commission. In a city memo, Community Relations Director Melanie Davis wrote that “(c)ommissioning Ms. Popko through sole source procurement is justifiable for professional artistic services; the purchase of art is highly specialized and unique, without a comparable unit.”

“Trailblazer” won’t be Popko’s first mural in the city. Popko, a Sterling Heights resident of almost 25 years and a pro artist for about that long, said in an email that she entered a contest to design a mural in the city in 2018 when the city library was seeking one.

Popko said that before she entered submissions for the contest, she tried to find out what the Sterling Heights Arts Commission wanted, showed them her portfolio and mentioned doing a mural for Graebner Elementary School’s gymnasium about 16 or 17 years ago.

While she didn’t win the library mural contest, “a month later, the city reached out and said they liked my ideas but thought they would work better on the back of the BP gas station,” she said.

That bear-themed gas station mural, located near Dodge Park and Utica roads, ended up being called “Sterling Pride,” and after that, the city appointed Popko to sit on the Arts Commission. She also did public artwork for Mount Clemens, Utica and Eastpointe. When she was working on the Eastpointe project, Sterling Heights approached her again with the idea of putting a mural at Ventimiglia’s, Popko said. She said she was thrilled to do it.

The idea for “Trailblazer” began, Popko said, after the city asked her to design something that represents the word “active.” So she thought about her own experiences with having fun in the city.

“The more I thought about the word ‘active’ and reflect on how Dodge Park has transformed these past couple of years, I really wanted to highlight how fortunate we are to have this in our community,” she said.

“Being a resident for almost 25 years, I have grown to love the biking/nature walk trails throughout Dodge Park with my family and dog. Kayaking just adds another level of activity and outdoor entertainment that many of my friends have raved about. That’s one of the things that stuck out in my mind while designing this mural. During our family walks, there’s at least one kayaker paddling by.”

Popko said her mural design also features soccer players, which refers to Dodge Park’s soccer field.

“The children are sporting Italian jerseys, a nod to Ventimiglia’s, the building I will be painting on,” she said. “Even the swirling/sloping tree line and horizon imitate the curves of the skatepark located by the library.”


Mural to contain high-tech component
The upcoming mural will allow spectators to interact with it via augmented reality. The AR component comes courtesy of the company BrandXR and its Electrifly app.

To further exemplify the mural’s “active” theme, Popko said, she contacted BrandXR to gauge their interest in joining the project, and they agreed. She drafted some designs and sent the company the top four.

“They chose the most AR-worthy design, and I shared my vision with Melanie Davis,” Popko said. “We both agreed that this unique aspect will draw interest, and that’s when the creative spark happened.”

Popko said that, through her scheduled work, Sterling Heights will be the first Michigan suburb to offer a mural with an AR component. She said that Electrifly is a free smartphone app that has a library of local murals and that people may download the images. Electrifly has amplified several murals in Detroit, and the company has also partnered with muralists in Colorado, Texas, Hawaii and Florida.

“And then depending on which image you’re standing in front of, the design will register the app and the mural will come alive as you watch it through the screen of your phone,” she said.

Popko said she previously has been a “solo show” with her art, but she was excited to work with Electrifly, though she called the collaboration a bit intimidating, too.

“With each public art installation I create, I challenge myself and try to improve on the experience. With that comes more preplanning,” she said. “We have already gone through countless designs for this space, and there will be more detailed illustrations needed for Electrifly to create the magic.”

An Electrifly representative did not respond for comment by press time concerning the nature of the proposed AR effects or interactive components.


City officials respond
At the April 6 City Council meeting, Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool called attention to the mural design, adding that the city’s public art program has been “really highly successful.” He also talked about what makes this project stand out.

“The artist working with this app company will actually allow individuals to bring the mural to life,” Vanderpool explained. “So when you’re in front of the mural and you’re taking a picture of it, various parts of the mural, through your phone, with the app, you’ll actually see it come to life, which is really super cool.”

Vanderpool added that the area next to the proposed mural wall will become a courtyard area with tables “where individuals can sit and have a sandwich from Ventimiglia’s or an iced tea or the like and enjoy the mural in sort of a minipocket quasi park.”

When Sterling Heights made a Facebook post announcing the mural news, some respondents showed excitement and said they love murals. Other commenters criticized the city for using taxpayer funds on the project during a time when the city is also considering raising taxes.

The “Trailblazer” mural project will cost $21,600 from the city’s public art fund, which is part of the Community Relations Department’s budget. According to a memo posted on the city’s website, the mural painting itself is estimated at $15,000, and the Electrifly augmented reality and interactive component is set to cost $5,000 to implement. The rest of the costs come from miscellaneous factors such as primer and a scissor lift rental.

In response to the funding concerns, Davis said public art is important, in part because of its potential for placemaking. The city said it kicked off a public art program in 2017 based on its 2030 Visioning placemaking goals.

“It can engage residents more with their community, and it can attract visitors from other areas because it serves as a destination focal point,” Davis said. “And as we bring in more people to our city, they frequent our businesses, and our local businesses are generating income from them. It’s important from an economic development perspective.”

Find out more about Wendy Popko by visiting paintwhip.blogspot.com or her Instagram account, @wendypopko. Find out more about Electrifly by visiting Electrifly.co. Learn more about Sterling Heights by visiting sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489.

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