Mural Artist Gina Franco chats about an up-and-coming art form, where a blank wall is transformed into a piece of art, and the world is a brighter place because of it.
By Kim Henry » Photos by Gina Elizabeth Franco
The life journey for Greensboro mural artist Gina Franco is comparable to the one flower that breaks through a crack in the concrete and demands to thrive no matter what. Even in the hectic flow of modern life, we see that splash of color surrounded by gray paving—and it can stop us in our tracks and make us smile.
Born in Spencer, NC, Franco moved to Greensboro with her mom and siblings when she was 12 years old. “There were limited art materials when I was growing up but I did have pencils and crayons and so I always drew,” says Franco with a sunny, open disposition. She remembers art being her main point of connection with her incarcerated dad. “I didn’t really know what to say to him in a letter so I would just send him a picture,” shares Franco. Navigating a childhood full of challenges, Franco didn’t graduate from high school, although she did complete her GED in time, and became a mother at 19 years old. Naturally, this put any dreams of being an artist on the back burner while she made her way through the joys and difficulties of supporting her son.
Franco became a technology teacher after graduating from Guildford College, although she remembers her favorite class was the one and only art class that she managed to take. “There was no time for hobbies or pleasure—I was just trying to figure out how to get my life in order for my son,” she says. It was while working at Oak Hill Elementary in High Point, NC that Franco first reconnected with her artistic side. The school wanted a mural painted in the library and Franco volunteered. Her large-scale portrayal of nature was greeted with nothing but praise and even Franco was surprised at how well it turned out.
“That was my first taste of people engaging with my art. It was such a great feeling, and I knew I wanted more,” smiles Franco, who is now a full-time mural artist, with an inspiring repertoire of work in multiple states.
That type of large-scale mural work truly touches people’s hearts and uplifts their spirits with bright, colorful images, often supporting equity and social justice. Her art reflects both her values and the infectious optimism she embodies despite the curve balls that life has certainly thrown her way. In 2016, her mother died after a lifelong battle with addiction, and Franco used her creative expression to both process her grief and break the stigma around mental health. Her series of paintings called “Life’s a Drag” resonated far and wide and encouraged healthy conversations around this issue, touching the lives of many different communities.
Words, music and the location of her blank wall canvass inform Franco’s creative process. She will often spend time in the area, chatting to local people and seeing what’s important to them before creating her sketch. As her art is very publicly on display, it’s important to Franco that the local community feel represented and even have some input. “Words and music are such a strong way that people connect, and that’s why I often use a lyric or line of poetry in my murals,” says Franco, whose work includes depictions of “Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright” and “We Are the One’s We’ve Been Waiting For.”
In 2018, Franco spearheaded a project called “The Rotating Wall,” a pivotal point in her artistic timeline. In a run-down part of Greensboro, Franco created a new, uplifting mural every month for 14 consecutive months on one particular wall. It was well received, with people lining up in anticipation of the next image throughout the process. The color, vibrancy and positive energy of the project provided a stark contrast to the urban setting and somehow reflects the ultimately optimistic essence of the artist herself.
Was it scary to take the leap from leaving her secure job in education to the erratic world of being a full-time artist? Of course! But Franco hasn’t looked back. “I can’t imagine locking my art up in a small place!” laughs Franco freely, truly valuing the fact that mural art in public places breaks down potentially divisive barriers by bringing art to the streets for everyone to enjoy. Her work can be seen as far afield as Florida, Denver and Charlotte—as well as locally in Carolina Beach—as this artist, who taught herself how to fill in a grant applications, continues to thrive.
Her medium is big and physically demanding by nature, with some walls presenting a grueling challenge. But as we circle back to the image of the flower that is determined to bloom, we can take inspiration from this tenacious artist and her life-enhancing, community-building work and hope that she graces our sandy shores with more of her light