Muscatine artist on expansive quest to “Paint the Pearl” downtown, with colorful, distinctive murals

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One of Chris Anderson’s dozen-plus murals in Muscatine, this one at 2nd and Iowa.

Chris Anderson is almost single-handedly altering the landscape of downtown Muscatine, by painting a slew of eye-catching colorful murals, that not only beautify buildings but honor the city’s rich history.

The 40-year-old painter is an employee of Pearl City Media, where his latest work involves filming and production. He has worked with the Community Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club of Muscatine, and the Muscatine Community School District. He’s done everything from murals and illustrating children’s books, to video production and live broadcasting.

Anderson calls his quest to transform buildings with indoor and outdoor murals “Paint the Pearl,” in tribute to Muscatine’s one-time reputation as “Pearl Button Capital of the World.” His first official mural was in 2013 on the back of the National Pearl Button Museum, 117 N. 2nd St.

Anderson’s first mural on the back of the National Pearl Button Museum, Muscatine.

“Since I painted the mural in 2013, I started learning the history of Muscatine, going around town, looking for spent shells, to make buttons,” the artist said recently. “I’d clean them, make art out of them, sell at the museum.” Anderson has turned old pearl buttons into a variety of items, including bracelets and necklaces, which he also sells at Hy-Vee in Muscatine, 510 E. 6th St.

At Hy-Vee, he films a weekday morning show every day at 9 a.m., hosted by Ashley Loveless. Before this week, it was only shown on Facebook Live, but now it airs on cable access, Mediacom channel 3. Pearl City Media is Muscatine’s only full-service media and news organization providing the community with local news and information and advertisers, with a full suite of marketing services. It operates the newspaper and website discovermusicatine.com.

Chris Anderson is a 40-year-old Waterloo native who’s lived in Muscatine for 15 years.

So how did Anderson get into murals, with only an art education in high school? The Waterloo native graduated from Waverly-Shell Rock High School, attended Kirkwood Community College, and has lived in Muscatine 15 years.

“I was kind of like a lot of people, I was a having hard time with life,” he said. “I was trying to find something new to do, to benefit me. What could I do to benefit the long-term, of myself and my community? The whole inspiration behind it is my daughter; I just wanted her to be proud of me.”

Anderson’s daughter is Chiara, age 13, and he’s painted about a dozen murals so far. “It’s been a joy,” he said, noting one is inside Jefferson Elementary School, where kids and teachers got involved with the art work. “It was so fun. It’s almost not even work when it’s so much fun,” Anderson said.

The mural inside Jefferson Elementary School, 1000 Mulberry Ave.

He looks around downtown for deteriorating buildings, or just walls that could use some freshening up and new life. While he usually gets paid for the work, a lot of them he just did for the cost of the paint.

“I feel like the pandemic really opened people’s eyes to art, and a lot of places started getting murals,” Anderson said. “It was like they could see the value in public art more, all of a sudden.”

The wall behind Pearl City Iowa Realty (at 222 W. 2nd St., which dates from 1856) was looking pretty bad and “now it looks like a million bucks,” he said.

Anna Mack-Smith, 60, owner of Pearl City Iowa Realty, has known Anderson a few years, and knew he was trying to get cleaned up, a new lease on life.

The mural behind Pearl City Iowa Realty, 222 W. 2nd St.

“I could see the potential in him then. He has a lot of artistic qualities,” she said recently. “I recognized he was trying to make himself a better person, somebody that really is trying. He asked for my help. We talked many, many times in the last several years.”

“The more he cleaned himself up, became his own person, the more creative he got,” Mack-Smith said, noting she saw some of the murals he’d painted, and when she bought her building four months ago (she rented before), she wanted one too.

“I think my mural is the best one. It’s a pretty cool mural,” she said. “I think he’s gotten a lot of attention around town because of his artwork. The longer he does it, the better he gets. I think it’s a big stepping stone. We can be known for these big things.”

Mack-Smith (who has a 36-year-old son who lives in Eldridge, and a 2-and-½ year-old grandson) has been a realtor for 20 years, and has lived in Muscatine since she was 13. The painted buildings not only enhance the appearance of each one, but boost the civic pride for the whole city.

“Why not use our buildings to beautify our downtown and attract attention?” she asked. “I do think they attract attention; that’s why I did it on my building. I highly respect him and his artwork. It’s really something that adds dimension. There are so many buildings that are allowed crumble and become eyesores.”

Muscatine has become a forgotten town for a lot of people, especially non-residents, Mack-Smith said. “We have got a lot to offer; there are so many neat things to do in Muscatine and most people don’t know about them.”

“I want to promote Muscatine, to promote the historical factor of Muscatine,” she said. “I think Muscatine is coming back a long way.”

The mural behind the Merrill Hotel, 119 W. Mississippi Drive, Muscatine.

“Chris is pretty awesome. He’s turned his life totally around, doing what he loves, and making money doing it,” she said.

Anderson usually charges $10 to $20 per square foot for his murals. One building, above Ruhl & Ruhl, which is owned by his landlord, will completely wrap around the building, covering thousands of square feet.

Each mural takes about three to four weeks to finish, he said. In the winter months, Anderson will concentrate on indoor murals, and painting on canvas.

“I really love it,” he said, noting he sells more affordable prints of his art, including $3 postcards at the Pearl Button Museum. Another of his murals is at All American Diner, 2300 Park Ave.

Anderson on top of the Ruhl & Ruhl building with his sky mural at the corner of 2nd and Cedar streets, Muscatine.

“It feels great — one of my favorite parts, I live downtown, I go for a walk, and I see people who don’t know I did it, taking pictures. There are stopping cars, people enjoying them. To me, it means it’s working. When I started, I was very apprehensive about the size of the murals. I’m not intimidated anymore.”

“I operate the best when somebody is telling me what they’d like to happen,” Anderson said. “I prefer giving the property owner of the building what they want. I will sketch something out and we’ll work out the details. That’s why, with Anna Mack from Iowa Realty, she had certain parameters she wanted to see, and she loves it.”

One of Anderson’s next projects is a new mural on the Jesus Mission at 508 Mulberry Avenue in Muscatine. The wall needs fixing, from water damage. For more information on “Paint the Pearl,” click HERE, and you can see more of Anderson’s work on his Facebook page.

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