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Meet the U-M students bringing color to campus, downtown Ann Arbor with geometric murals

U-M students and Live in Color founders Elena Smith, Julian Hansen and Zoe Duncan-Doroff.
U-M students and Live in Color founders Elena Smith, Julian Hansen and Zoe Duncan-Doroff. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – Whether you frequent University of Michigan’s campus or regularly walk the streets of downtown Ann Arbor, it’s likely you’ve come across Live in Color’s work without realizing it.

The student group, founded at U-M by three friends in 2017, began as an effort to beautify some of the university’s cold, colorless buildings.

“When we were freshmen in 2016, we started going to classes in all these different buildings," said Zoe Duncan-Doroff. “So many of them were old and worn down and full of these long, white hallways (and we) really wished there was more color and design integrated into them when they were built. So we decided to start.”

Duncan-Doroff, along with U-M Men’s Rowing teammates Julian Hansen and Elena Smith, got approval from a facilities manager on campus.

“We put up our first mural in the basement of the Modern Languages Building and got great feedback, especially because our first one was across from an office of faculty that are there year-round,” said Duncan-Doroff. “They had it outside their window and really loved the addition to the building. And so we just kept adding more around campus.”

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“People at the university have been super nice,” said Smith. “At first we were a little nervous if they would let us paint the walls but they’ve been really receptive.”

With several murals in the Modern Languages Building, the group also has work featured in Palmer Commons and in the undergraduate library.

Soon, local businesses started taking notice.

The group said their mural on RoosRoast’s storefront on E. Liberty was their “breakthrough,” and soon after, other businesses like Bløm Meadworks, Bivouac, Argus Farm Stop and Arbor Brewing Co. started reaching out.

With 330 students on its mailing list, Live in Color is anything but a small organization. For large murals that take up entire hallways, as many as 40 students have shown up to pitch in, but for smaller projects, they have to cap the number of volunteers.

“Something that’s cool about our model is that it’s come one come all," said Duncan-Doroff. "We do primarily geometric paintings so anyone can jump in and come paint because we tape out designs. It’s sort of a paint by numbers situation, which is so fun. And we have a design team now that’s been generating more complex and nuanced pieces for the smaller painting crews.”

Live in Color mural at Bløm Meadworks at 100 S. 4th Ave.
Live in Color mural at Bløm Meadworks at 100 S. 4th Ave. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

The process has shifted from pitching designs to the university to clients reaching out with specific ideas in mind.

“Instead of us contacting school buildings, we’re getting a lot of requests now," said Smith. “Now, we have to take what the client wants and work around that. We have a good chunk of art students and they are leading the design team. We’ll send a draft to whoever wants to look at it and they’ll give us feedback.”

Considering that some murals take eight to nine hours to complete, their prices are competitive. An average mural costs anywhere from $200 to $400, with $5 per square foot. On off-campus projects, the team charges for hours to subsidize materials for their work on campus.

“We’re not doing this to make money,” said Hansen. “But we do try to cover the cost of materials.”

While the three seniors are looking ahead to graduating next year, they want to make sure the group continues after they’ve moved away.

“We’ve been dedicating a lot of time to ensuring structural sustainability," said Hansen. "(We’ve been) spending more time setting up a legitimate design team as well as holding one-on-ones with people who are interested in order to also bring them onto the leadership team.”

They’ve also been working to establish pricing and a project pipeline for clients, said Duncan-Doroff.

But as it gains momentum in town, one thing the group tries to remember is its original mission.

“Our mission lies in bringing color to campus and we’ve got a lot of outreach from local businesses," said Duncan-Doroff. “But our main purpose, we feel, is to pursue projects on campus.”

To learn more about Live in Color, visit its website.

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