In 1999, while working on a series of large paintings of Americans at work, Ellen went to Boeing to witness the fabrication of the 747. Her desire to evoke the overwhelming expanse of the workspace in Everett inspired her first study for the mural.
In the late 1970s, she had seen what she would later realize was the first inspiration for the project: the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, a collection of giant towers of concrete and chicken wire that one man, an immigrant named Simon Rodia, had assembled in his backyard in the course of 30 years. Rodia used a sling to raise himself into the air while creating the towers, the largest of which reached almost 100 feet. Neighborhood children would leave shards of broken china, soda bottles, kitchen utensils, and working tools for inclusion in the cement structure, which finally covered an entire city block. The towers were Rodia’s gift to America in thanks for the opportunity to be a U.S. citizen.
Like the towers, the mural is a tribute to the country on a large scale. The towers also inspired the mural’s collaborative aspect. While creating the study, Ellen realized that her own two kids were largely unaware of the work being done around them: its power, beauty, and satisfactions, which she felt it shared with her work as an artist. She began to see the mural as an opportunity to inspire and challenge others, especially kids—not only by depicting this work in the mural, but by involving them in the mural’s creation, in the kind of work she was doing.
250 students from eight schools in CT, MA, and NY collaborated on the first state project. The finished mural will include one project involving kids in each state. More than 15,000 kids have worked on the mural to date.