Thesis student Annie Dong’s mural project to be displayed at Bradenton City Hall
Annie Dong’s collaborative community mural. Photo courtesy of Annie Dong.

Thesis student Annie Dong’s mural project to be displayed at Bradenton City Hall

In a crowded room at Bradenton City Hall, thesis student Annie Dong stood with trembling hands before the City Council. She was presenting her collaborative mural, and why it should be publicly displayed. Her passion sparked from her own earlier mural at Caples that the New College administration had painted over, a literal white-wash over her Chinese heritage. 

The title of that  mural was “Red Crowned Cranes,” and it displayed two stylized  birds. The mural brought light to Dong’s Chinese heritage and the celebration of her culture, where cranes  symbolize wisdom and gracefulness. The mural also depicted chrysanthemum flowers, which symbolize luck and happiness. The flower also means one’s inner self, a symbol that appears as well in American author John Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums.

Annie Dong’s “Red Crowned Cranes” mural. Photo courtesy of Annie Dong.

Dong was born in St. Petersburg, Florida as a first-generation Chinese American. In an interview with the Catalyst, she explained that her parents worked very hard but were unable to care for her, so she was raised in Fuzhou, China until the age of seven. She said her early life in China inspires her to focus in her art on color, nostalgia, memories and her culture. “Red Crowned Cranes”  was especially inspired by the supportive Chinese Program at New College. 

“They teach Mandarin, Chinese poetry and so much more that I couldn’t access as a child growing up in Florida,” Dong said. “And for the first time, being a teen in college and seeing that New College has that kind of culture, inspired that mural”

Dong’s first language was Mandarin, and thus in a not-so-culturally diverse school in Tampa, she struggled to make friends and recalled that kids would make fun of her language barrier. “I didn’t understand English and they saw me as a different person, so the only thing that I had was the art classroom.” 

Dong’s parents could not afford fancy art supplies. But armed with simple crayons and pencils, she cultivated her love for a language that was universally spoken: the language of art. 

The spark of Dong’s passion has never burned out, even when her mural and three other student murals were painted over just a few months after they were completed. Dong was only made aware of the erasure through the local community.

“I was disappointed, not because it got destroyed or painted over, because that’s what happens with public art. But this mural was supposed to stay up for at least five years and I was more upset at the lies from the administration, saying that we were supposed to be notified.” 

Angry students wrote emails and letters to the New College administration. Neither Dong nor any of the other artists say they were notified or gave consent for the paint-over. 

Still, Dong turned lemons into lemonade and the ordeal inspired her thesis,  “Community Impact, Murals and Public Art.” The project focuses on bringing public, accessible mural projects to underprivileged communities that would otherwise not be exposed to art. Dong has been working closely with teens from the Boys and Girls Club of Manatee County, a nonprofit organization that offers after-school activities for youth. With Dong’s assistance and coaching plus help from Art Center Sarasota ,the teens created “The Essence of Sarasota Bay,” a floral and nature-themed mural in Downtown Sarasota. 

Dong wanted students to bond while learning and expressing themselves through a creative outlet. She has “watched [the teens] grow and their artistic skills grow, and get more confidence in their creative  bubbles.” 

The destruction of the crane mural inspired Dong to build transportable panels to make art more accessible to communities. This led to a new mural entitled “Community Art mural project.” . “This next project was done on panels to be more transportable and accessible to a wider audience in the community instead of staying on one wall in one public space. It can be traveled to many public spaces to reach bigger audiences,” Dong stated. 

Dong is still grateful for her crane mural, even though the outcome was unexpected and frustrating. “It got my foot in the door for so many big opportunities to make more murals in the community.  Even outside of the community, I was able to do more murals because of this. So I took it as a positive outcome even though it was negative.” 

And bigger opportunities came indeed. Dong had a meeting with the Public Art Coordinator of Manatee County Jean Farmer after Farmer heard about Dong’s silenced mural. Farmer asked if they could house it in City Hall. The mayor was all for the project but it had to be approved by the Council members. Dong stood in front of the intimidating adults in suits and presented her thesis and the importance of vulnerability. 

The mural will be displayed for busy council members and political leaders who might forget the words “I’m beautiful, I’m courageous. I’m Hispanic. I am a son. I’m a sister,” she told the group. This is the main message of the mural Dong wants to convey, for people to be their truest and best selves, whatever that might look like. 

“I remember one of the ladies from the City Council board said that it was really beautiful and reminded her that at the end of the day, we’re just the different hats we wear. But at the same time, at the end of the day, we’re all just humans trying to coexist.” The Council loved Dong’s work, but another venue wanted to display it first. As Dong so eloquently put it, “We’re going on a little tour.” Before the mural goes to Manatee City Hall, it will be displayed at the Senior Friendship Center, a community activity hub in downtown Sarasota.

Annie Dong speaking in front of Bradenton City Council. Photo courtesy of Dan Potthast.

Dong graduates from New College in May and plans on becoming a full-time muralist. She will attend artist residencies in different states next year and apply for graduate school to earn her master’s in Fine Arts Painting. 

When the Catalyst asked Dong what she would say to the little girl who could barely speak English, a girl who could never imagine she would be where she is now, Dong became emotional. “I would tell her that she inspires me to keep going every day. I never would have thought, even three years ago, to do the things I do now. Like being able to reach a bigger audience and share my story. I would tell the little girl that she inspires the grown-up me.”

Flyer for 2024 Thesis Art Exhibition. Photo courtesy of Annie Dong.

The New College Thesis Art Exhibition opening and reception will be held  Thursday, April 18 from 5:00-6:30 p.m. in Isermann Gallery on the Caples campus. There will be displays by Dong along with two additional thesis students, Lianna McDonald and Cindy Xin Zhang. As Dong observed, “the cool thing about this thesis opening exhibition is that we’re all focused on Chinese American art. So we share our stories with the same culture but from different points of view.”

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