Keith Smith always wanted his artwork to bring people together.
Early this week, he achieved that goal as handfuls of Creston Community High School students gathered at Creston Municipal Pool to help Smith bring a 90-foot mural on the front wall of the pool to life.
Smith, a Creston native now living in Chicago, planned for the project to take three days to complete.
Instead, Smith and CCHS students endured two grueling days of heat and constant work to complete the project by the end of Tuesday in order to beat Wednesday's rain and storm.
By the end of Tuesday, Smith was left with sunburns, cramping shoulders and a numb index finger from spray-painting dot after dot on top of his mural.
"We planned to do it Monday through Wednesday, so we rushed really fast to get it done by the end of Tuesday," Smith said. "It took two days to cover a 90-foot wall. Even people from Chicago were like, 'How did you do that?' It's because Bailey (Fry-Schnormeier) was really awesome at organizing it all. She got the students involved and the local community came out to help. It was exactly the way I want my art to be. I want people to come together in communities and make it happen."
Smith graduated from Creston High School in 2008 and Fry-Schnormeier began teaching art classes at the school the following fall.
As she began organizing the painting of various murals around town, she kept hearing about how Smith should be brought back to collaborate on one.
"I felt like he was just this legend in the art room," she said. "Everyone always talked about Keith and how great he was. In recent years, he posts on Instagram and Facebook all the time, so I've been following him there. I just really like his style. I think it's really fun and really youthful. It has a lot of energy to it. I thought it would be great to have him come back someday."
As everything fell into place for the collaboration to become a reality, Smith started sending mock-ups to Fry-Schnormeier. The 90-foot canvas of the Creston Municipal Pool's front wall presented a huge challenge for Smith, as it was easily the largest canvas he'd painted.
Once he began working on the wall this week, Smith realized he'd need to make some changes from his mock-ups. A new character was added to the mural at the last minute as a spot opened up on the wall.
The mural includes four characters and a dog on a surfboard on the east side of the building and four more characters and Pete the cat on the west side of the building. Two mandalas provide "inviting symbols" on each side of the entrance to the building.
Smith spent all four years of high school leading the fundraising effort to bring the skate park to McKinley Park.
The skate park was eventually built in the summer of 2008, the same summer Smith moved to Chicago.
It was disappointing for Smith to not be able to enjoy the skate park as much as he would have liked after spearheading the fundraising effort. But, painting such a large mural right next to the skate park tied everything together for Smith.
Smith posted photos of the completed project to social media Tuesday evening and his phone continually rang with notifications as people heaped praise upon him while he was at dinner with his mother, Carol Smith.
"It's overwhelming. I can't even describe it," he said. "Going from these tiny sketches on paper to this huge 90-foot wall is unreal. It's really gratifying to know people had such positive feedback with it. To be able to do it in my hometown is an even better feeling. And to do it right next to the skate park, because during high school I helped fundraise to get that skate park built. To know I put that skate park there was amazing enough, and now that I have a mural next to it is a double whammy. I can't explain how amazing it feels to leave that here in a town I was raised in and inspired me to do what I continue to do."
'You are beautiful'
Smith currently works as a production assistant for the "You Are Beautiful" project in Chicago, scouting locations to place installations and working on production in shop.
The "You Are Beautiful" project installs a simple message all across Chicago – "You Are Beautiful."
His first stop once he arrived in Creston Sunday evening was uptown Creston, installing a "You Are Beautiful" painting along a wall in an alleyway on North Maple Street.
"Oh man, it meant a lot," Smith said about bringing "You Are Beautiful" to his hometown. "Even in Chicago, a lot of the murals have been up more than 10 years, so knowing it will be there for awhile is great. It's right uptown. You can see it from the train. When the parade comes uptown, you'll see it then. You'll get a lot of eyes on it and hopefully it will inspire a lot of people."
Fry-Schnormeier said this week was a great opportunity for her students to work with Smith, who has been exploding on the Chicago art scene lately. Smith has entered his art in numerous shows and has began live painting at multiple events per month, even having live painted at several music festivals.
"It's amazing for them to have this chance to see someone who started off at Creston High School, who has been able to take what he learned from there and go off on his little adventure to Chicago. He's making a living as an artist," Fry-Schnormeier said. "I'm just really grateful for this opportunity to work with Keith. He's an amazing young man and it's great to get to know him through this process. I hope he'll come back and do something else with the students in the future."
Smith hopes the two pieces he installed in Creston this week serve as an inspiration to Creston's youth.
In high school, Smith focused on black and white portraits as he was afraid to experiment with color. Since moving to Chicago, he's learned to trust himself and incorporate color to his pieces.
The mural on the wall of the pool building displays a mix of both styles, with black and white characters surrounded by splashes and swirls of color.
"I want to inspire more younger people to step out of their boundaries to be creative and be expressive and swirl around on a canvas and do whatever you want to do," he said. "I want people to be instantly happy from the brightness of it. I want people to have fun and take photos in front of it and enjoy it."
Smith expressed his gratitude toward the city of Creston – not only for the support he received while back in his hometown this week, but also for inspiring him to follow his passion for art.
"Stay in touch with your community that helped you come up. You never know what kind of impact that will leave," Smith said. "This is indescribable. I can't put it into words. It's definitely the best feeling I've ever had making artwork."