Rapids City Painter Brings Public Art and a Bright, New Dawn Throughout Quad-Cities
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If it’s the dream of most artists to make their mark on society and leave a legacy for future generations, 28-year-old Atlanta Dawn Fulscher of Rapids City has already done that many, many times over.
And Dawn (who goes by her atmospheric middle name) has accomplished this – in a spectacular, prolific and blazingly colorful fashion – pretty much in just the past two years in gorgeous permanent murals, temporary painted windows and canvases spread throughout the Quad-Cities.
“Atlanta Dawn’s perspective and her creativity always captures the Quad-Cities regional destination in a vibrant and welcoming way,” Dave Herrell, President/CEO of Visit Quad Cities, said recently. “Since arriving in the QC, and first seeing her artwork at The Rust Belt and getting to know her, I have been incredibly impressed with her talent and lens.”
Less than three months after giving birth to her first child (daughter Violet), Dawn did a live painting of a QC river scene Oct. 28, 2021, in the Figge Art Museum lobby for the launch of the new “QC, That’s Where” brand campaign and partnership between Visit Quad Cities and the Chamber of Commerce.
“Atlanta has a great spirit about her, which makes it fun to work closely on public art initiatives and projects. Her understanding of why public art is so vitally important to our community is aligned with Visit Quad Cities and how our creative energy can move us forward,” Herrell said. “It’s why we chose her to be on-site during our QC, That’s Where brand launch and the recent I-74 River Bridge Celebration (Dec. 1).
“Atlanta’s ability to inject her ideas that showcase the QC in a fun, exciting, inclusive, and sometimes whimsical way is captivating and is the reason why you see so many of her creations around the region,” he said, noting she painted so many holiday scenes in downtown business windows.
“The downtown product experience and how visitors and Quad Citizens connect with our downtowns is crucial to building a meaningful sense of place and improving quality of life,” Herrell said. “Public art evokes emotion, thought, and inspiration and is why we need more of it to showcase our vibrancy and punch up some color in the QC.
“The Quad Cities is a brand, needs to be treated as such, and with any good brand it will continually evolve,” he added. “Public art can tell a story that is visceral and makes an impact in how people perceive a place. So, ensuring that our artists are supported, and that public art is robust in the Quad Cities will only add to our identity, how we shape perception, and achieve our tourism goals and objectives.”
“Atlanta and her artwork are helping create a sense of place within our community,” agreed Ryan Jantzi, executive director of the Downtown Bettendorf Organization. She painted this past holiday season at eight Bettendorf locations.
The DBO challenged Dawn to design unique displays that highlighted the individual businesses. “From the elf workshop at K&K Hardware, Santa and Rudolph playing football at Sportsfans, to Santa in a bathtub at Concept Bath — all were a big hit,” Jantzi said.
“Her artwork was seen throughout the QC and her passion and attention to detail does not go unnoticed,” he said. “Public art is vital in supporting a thriving community. We want to attract not only residents but visitors into the QC. Public art displays help define our community and help establish a thriving community attractive to residents and future residents alike.”
Geoff Manis, Main Street Manager for Moline Centre, sings the same hymn of praise for whom he called “one of the QC region’s most dynamic visual artists.”
In October, as he headed to a meeting at the Freight House Farmers Market in downtown Davenport to discuss the Lighting on the Commons/Holiday Hop in downtown Moline with a business connection, Dawn was painting one of the many south-facing windows at the Freight House complex.
“I asked her if she would be willing to paint some windows downtown Moline for the holidays, and she obliged,” Manis recalled in a recent email. “What I can say about the talents of Atlanta Dawn is that not only is she REALLY REALLY good at creating large-scale murals with an immense amount of detail, she is also remarkably fast. She is like the time-lapse setting on your smartphone with a paint brush. I am looking forward to working with Atlanta to create opportunities in downtown Moline to have more of her artistic talents on display.”
Love for art from a young age
Dawn grew up in Moline, all through school, graduating from Moline High. She attended the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design for two years, dropping out due to a health condition. She also did a summer program at Kansas City Art Institute during junior year of high school. Dawn won a $10,000 Brand-Boeshaar Scholarship from the Figge Art Museum.
“I always showed natural talent in the arts throughout grade school and middle school,” she said, crediting her Moline High School teacher Nick DiGioia, “for being a great teacher and doing his best to help his students grow.”
“So, I feel as a teenager you are always told by your elders that you can’t make a living at doing art or the term ‘a starving artist’ is constantly thrown around and it makes young people believe that being an artist isn’t a career choice,” Dawn said. “I believe this ideology prevented me from having confidence to start my path sooner.”
“I did get to taste the water of doing art projects for business owners while being an employee to a few local small businesses and that projected me into starting a portfolio of work and starting a reputation of doing such work,” she said, noting she’s worked at several local restaurants – including Barrel House, The Combine, Tap 22 and Steel Plow. Dawn’s last restaurant job was at The Combine (East Moline) before pandemic shutdowns.
She had worked in massage therapy for a while, and moved with a friend to Washington State for a year in 2015, and then moved to Oregon (an hour south of Portland) and worked at a ski resort.
Dawn ended up traveling again about two years with a boyfriend, who worked at Air Force bases, and she got sick of traveling, and wanted to settle down. “I spent most of my 20s traveling, which was good,” she said. “You get the travel bug out of your pants. I really think traveling helped open my eyes to what was possible doing art in the community.”
“I’d always see local art in other towns and I thought, ‘This is really cool; I could do that.’ At the time, we didn’t have a whole lot of that art here,” Dawn said of the QC. “There are artists who have come about in the last decade, and I’ve seen the murals and the commercial work, and that sparked me – if they could do it, I could do it.
“It’s then just making the right connections with the right people, and making contacts with business owners,” Dawn said. “I worked at a lot of restaurants and I always was a good employee, and I worked really hard. So I made good relationships with those owners of those restaurants.”
For the first year or two, she did a lot of projects for free or very cheap, “so I could build up my portfolio of work,” she said. “I still didn’t believe it as a full-time job though. I still thought I had to have a regular 8-5 job in order to be successful and then I could do my art gigs on the side. That did work, but eventually my art-related jobs demanded more and more of my time. I watched other local artists like Aimee Ford and Heidi Sallows and admired their work in my early 20s.
“I followed Aimee on social media and was always impressed by her work ethic. Every day she was posting new projects and it finally clicked in my head that it is possible, you just have to work every day and work your butt off,” Dawn said. “It takes time for your career to develop because you have to make relationships with people, grow your following and consistently produce high-quality work.”
Right before Covid shutdowns (in March 2020), she painted a lot of pet portraits, and painted live portraits during Rust Belt concerts in East Moline. She had silent auctions sheets for people to bid on the paintings.
“I did a few of the bands, and I would also create some imagery that I thought reflected the music, so it had the same vibe,” Dawn said. “Those were really cool, because they were a one-of-a-kind piece that someone could take time, like a memory of the show. I would sell them right at the end of the show.”
She ended up doing eight of those, including one when her sister – Monica Austin – opened for Wynonna Judd in February 2020. “It was really cool – it was the first time she got to perform and do her thing, while I got to perform and do my thing. It was a pretty magical moment.”
Dawn did a permanent mural above the Rust Belt bar, a Stevie Nicks one in the women’s restroom, and an electric butterfly mural, done in winter 2019.
A friend of hers who worked at Rust Belt got her that job. “Once I posted things on my social media of the work I was doing there, and just being there, I made a lot of connections and that’s kind of helped me progress so quickly in doing more,” she said.
Dawn painted the Iron & Grain Coffee House logo inside the Rust Belt complex in 2020, including a column of a wall for other businesses, and a mural inside. She’s hoping to get back to doing live painting at Rust Belt shows.
Last winter, Dawn started doing window paintings throughout Q-C downtowns. She had business owner friends who asked her to do their windows, and the Downtown Davenport Partnership contacted her about doing windows there, to enliven the 2020 holiday season.
“There was no Festival of Trees parade and no Festival of Trees, so they were trying to brainstorm ways they could bring the holiday spirit for the community, since those events weren’t happening,” she said. “That’s really how it blew up. They promoted my services to all the downtown Davenport businesses. A lot more jumped on board this winter than the previous year, because they perhaps saw the impact the window paintings had with the community, or how much the community enjoyed them.”
A big boost from Downtown Davenport Partnership
Alisha Espey, program director for the Downtown Davenport Partnership, said of Dawn:
“Atlanta has such a bright spirit and you can always see it come through her work. She’s a work horse and I’m always impressed by her ability to take on a number of projects at once and produce quality pieces for each of her clients. She works hard to draw out what kind of message or theme people want to see and takes a lot of pride in making the pieces have a personal connection. It’s been wonderful to see her career take off and bring smiles to so many faces.
“During 2020, I think we all were in need of something to brighten our spirits,” Espey said. “We did a pilot project in 2020, sharing some costs with businesses to do some holiday window displays. I think we did a total of six in 2020. It was such a hit that the businesses wanted to do it again this year and the demand just exploded. She had about 15 projects in downtown Davenport alone. And then of course downtown Bettendorf hired her as well. We love continuing to work with her because she has high energy, is so community-minded and dependable.”
“She’s helped us reimagine ways we can activate our downtown streets through low-cost, temporary installations,” Espey said. “Over the holidays, her art was everywhere throughout our downtown. She made it such a fun experience to walk down the streets and discover each piece. We had people submit votes for their favorites and there was so much excitement – nearly 500 people participated in that survey.
“Art is one of the most valuable components in building culture in a downtown,” she added. “No matter who you are or what brings you downtown, the public art is freely accessible and open to bring people joy. It’s an important connection point and one we want to build upon. We are excited for what’s to come in the public art realm in 2022.”
Dawn was nowhere as busy in 2020 as she was this past holiday season. “It was crazy this season,” she said, estimating she painted more than 90 downtown windows in the area, compared to about 35 the first year.
If she does a Christmas theme, there’s a risk of irritating people after Jan. 1, so it may have to be removed, or she can paint a more generic winter theme that can stay up through until February. Dawn offers a service to remove the paintings.
Probably a third of her window paintings are Christmas-oriented. She used to sketch out her paintings on paper ahead of time, but that’s time-consuming and she doesn’t have a lot of time (especially with a newborn). As she’s driving to a location, she often comes up with an idea, and does it on a whim. She paints by free hand, often with suggestions from the business.
“I have a few friends – I do their business spring, summer, fall, winter – and they just tell me, go do your thing. I trust you,” Dawn said. “Those are fun.” Those regulars include Thirsty’s on Third, Unimpaired Dry Bar, and Me & Billy in Davenport; Red Rover Day Care in Davenport, and Mama B’s Café in Coal Valley.
She paints windows all through the year, over the past year. “The community really enjoyed this. They’re bright and colorful and they add so much flair or a vibe to the outside windows.”
Recently, Dawn did windows for the Crossfit gym at Rust Belt. “They wanted something to prevent people from looking in while they’re working out. They wanted some privacy,” she said. “So my window paintings allowed it to be super fun on the outside, but offer that privacy on the inside.”
Many mural jobs she gets from social media posts or a friend’s referral, she said. “There’s a handful of us,” Dawn said of mural artists.
“In the business mindset, the windows are awesome because its’s an endless canvas that can constantly change,” she said. “That’s helped me a lot stay as a full-time artist because it’s something that’s temporary – so as I go update them and change them, it’s bringing me income that I can rely on and count on, and calculate in my business plan.”
Downtown Davenport Partnership recommended her to Visit Quad Cities, to do new paintings for the “QC, That’s Where” campaign, including a live painting in the Figge Art Museum lobby during the launch on Oct. 28.
“Not a lot of artists can paint something that quick. I have a really keen ability to paint fast, so that helps when it comes to live painting,” Dawn said. “I try not to over-think or analyze my designs as I’m doing it. I just do it, and I know how to break it down in my head, what areas need to be done, in a process where I know I can finish it on time.”
“It is nerve-wracking. The first couple times I did live painting, it was pretty scary,” she said. “I used to do chalkboards at Bent River, and I would have everyone in the restaurant staring at me while I did ‘em, because the board was on the wall. I got used to people watching me. At first, it freaked me out. Over time, you just block it out.”
Visit Quad Cities just told her to do something fun and whimsical, and encapsulates what the Q-C is about.
A vital link to Living Lands & Waters
She has volunteered with Living Lands & Waters over the years, and her boyfriend Cody Breecher (who is Violet’s father) has been their operations manager since December 2020.
“Chad P. called me offering Cody the job for Operations Manager for Living Lands the same day I found out I was pregnant,” Dawn recalled. “It was quite a day and a lot to consider for our path forward. They have traveled around the country working on cleanups with them, removing garbage from America’s rivers.
“They’re so much fun,” she said. The former “Buddy” Bison – a big, colorful fiberglass statue – was painted in June 2021 by Dawn to promote the ambitious Bison Bridge project, that Pregracke announced in March 2021 to repurpose the existing I-80 bridge connecting LeClaire and Rapids City.
She said recently they can’t call him Buddy Bison anymore, since they got a call from the National Park Trust, which uses Buddy Bison as their mascot. They have to change that or don’t use that term. Pregracke’s long-term vision is to create Bison Bridge (converted to a pedestrian/bike path on one side and green path for a limited herd of bison on the other) and the acreage on either side of the Mississippi River adjacent to the bridge into a new National Park. Visitors will have the chance to learn about the history of the prairie, native wildlife, and the historical significance of the river. Bison Bridge plans (all privately funded, about $20 million) to have the current westbound lanes as a forested, vegetation-filled bison refuge – the largest wildlife crossing in the world — and the other side as a pedestrian-bike crossing, with many amenities.
The nonprofit Bison Bridge Foundation has gathered about 40,000 signatures toward a goal of 50,000 to show the Illinois Department of Transportation public support for the project. The fiberglass bison was donated by a company in St. Paul, Minn., where LL&W did a cleanup early in June, for the Bison Bridge Project, Dawn said. Pregracke was inspired by the tradition of painted horses in Louisville, in honor of the Kentucky Derby, she said.
“He just thought that was so cool. And he’s like, let’s get bison, right?” Dawn said. Louisville’s Sidewalk Derby has graced the streets of Louisville with more than 500 vibrantly decorated fiberglass statues since 2004 to help beautify the community. Her green and blue-painted bison was brought to events throughout the community this past summer, accompanied by LL&W interns to explain Bison Bridge and answer questions about the project, she said.
“I feel like taking the bison around to all the local events helped people ask questions they were concerned about,” Dawn said recently. “It’s kind of a confusing – it sounds so off-the-wall. Why would you ever do that? In reality, it is realistic and it can happen.”
She had a very smooth pregnancy, giving birth to her girl August 4th. “I did more projects pregnant than I did the previous year,” she said. “I didn’t have any complications. I kept working. I have a lot of social media posts where I’ve got my big belly in a time lapse video, doing my artwork. I did not let that stop me.”
Her parents and Breecher’s parents have been great in devoting time to babysit, so that Dawn can paint.
“I’m extremely grateful to be able to do what I love and make a living at it,” she said. “Going forward, I am super excited to continue painting our town in color and providing services to small businesses. The future looks bright as I continue to increase my skills and work hard.”
Chosen for Bettendorf bridge ornament
Pat Bereskin, Bettendorf artist and gallery owner, said at their annual Plein Air Paint Out in October, Dawn painted a “one of a kind “ point of view of the new/old I-74 bridge. The Downtown Business Women’s Association selected Atlanta’s piece out of all the other painters’ work for the Holiday Ornament Fundraiser. The ornament is 100% a fundraiser for the High School Women’s Scholarship for a Bettendorf and PV student in honor of Debra LaMar, a Bettendorf alderwoman who was a driving force for the arts in Bettendorf and passed away four years ago from cancer.
Dawn’s work is sold in the Bereskin Gallery and “we hope to enjoy the fruits of her labor in the coming months,” Bereskin said.
“Atlanta became a pixie with her magical brush giving the Quad Cities something to smile about as they drove to and from work, school, home,” she said. “Each day people received the benefit of joy from her fun depictions of holiday cheer painted in the windows and businesses across the Quad Cities. She painted live at the Figge and the bridge opening — sharing her talent and time to again immortalize our area on canvas for generations to come.”
Imelda Rabang, from Bold Business said, “When arts and culture interweave in the fabric of a community, it helps cities attract tourists, diverse talent, brings about innovation and grows the economy,” Bereskin noted. “From citizens, individual artists, cultural organizations to businesses and government leadership—everybody in the ecosystem benefits from the arts.” Our community believes in growth and creating/enhancing our assets — one of them is with the infusion of art in our schools, homes, businesses and cityscapes.”
“The time for the Quad Cities Renaissance is now,” Bereskin added.
Bettendorf Downtown Women’s Business Association not only funded the $1,000 scholarships, but gave $1,800 for the Jefferson Neighborhood Holiday Gift Project, and $1,500 in scholarships for STEAM and art. Dawn sold the Bereskin Gallery painting, her first, to a rower.
“That was super exciting,” she said. “I have a goal of doing more personal pieces like that,” the artist said. “It takes a lot out of me to get a canvas painting, just in the time. I want to do more of that. I’ve never had the proper space to do that at home; it’s always been in a bedroom or a basement. It’s hard to just canvas paint, and leave your mess. You have to clean up.”
She will be looking this year for a studio space where she can paint canvases. “I’d like to do Midwest-inspired paintings of landscapes, encapsulating what I love about the Midwest.”
Helping Blue Cat and plans for 2022
On Dec. 23, Dawn rescued iconic Blue Cat Brew Pub in downtown Rock Island, by painting over graffiti on the south-facing wall.
Charlie Cole, Blue Cat’s head brewer and co-owner, noticed the pink graffiti on the wall (113 18th St., Rock Island) on Monday morning, Dec. 20, when he got into work. Dawn saw a photo of the graffiti and contacted Cole (who’s a friend of hers) about painting over it. She completed the new art (a blue catfish, to match Blue Cat’s logo) within five hours, dressed in a festive red-and-white elf outfit.
“It’s great,” Cole said last month. “She actually did a lot of work at Bent River when I was there. She’s done a lot of work for a lot of local businesses and other breweries. We have several mutual friends.”
They covered the new wall art in a sealant, so any attempt at tagging over it can be easily removed, Cole posted on Facebook. “And if they decide to tag any other part of the wall, that will be covered by another local artist. The lighting has been upgraded on that wall, the public cameras are facing it, and a police report has been filed. Defense is the best offense.”
“The Blue Cat Brewing Co. is back in action and thriving. If you haven’t been in since they reopened last month, add it to your to do list,” Dawn posted in December. “Food is great and brewmaster Charlie Cole is crafting up liquid gold.”
She said that Cole originally thought of having a local graffiti artist cover the unwanted graffiti with spray paint. “Then I thought about it, and I was like, it’s a blue cat. I could do a really cool catfish,” Dawn said. “I was like, well, I don’t do spray paint, but I’d love to paint a really cool catfish and he’s like, all right then.”
She said recently that just after the New Year, she was contacted by a nearby business owner about even larger graffiti (white on a black wall at 4th Avenue and 20th Street) to do some similar visual magic, but that has to wait a while. Dawn said her window art is throughout the year and provides monthly income to remain a full-time artist.
“I also do a lot of mural work and commissions,” she said. “I started practicing sign painting last year and took a handful of classes from Jim Hetzler on enamel painting and lettering. I hope to make time to continue practicing these old-time techniques and offering more services with these newly acquired skills. I do all my marketing through word of mouth or on social media.”
From January to October, she has a handful of businesses that she updates seasonally for windows throughout the year. “I have a few murals a month and canvas paintings scattered throughout. I feel like I consistently have equal amounts every month in each category,” Dawn said.
“I receive inquires from at least 3-5 new customers a month, business is steady and I am working on managing my time better to accommodate being a mom and a full-time artist,” she said. “Sometimes I get a job that I don’t think I have the best capability for or I don’t have time to do and will try and source another local artist.”
“Every project is a means of layers and I love just watching my beginning-to-end process. I often try to record time-lapse videos of this process to share with my social media followers,” she said, noting her favorite mural is one she painted for Toppling Goliath at The Rust Belt. “I collaged three of their beer labels together to create the design and I love the pictures I receive from music goers running away from the giant T Rex,” she said.
2022 should be a good year since Dawn said 22 is her favorite number. “I raced go-karts as a kid and my racing number was A2. I never liked the idea of having the number 1 because I felt like it was cocky to always think you are the best. And everything is better in pairs so 2 turned into 22 throughout the years. Just one of those things where you make a connection you don’t quite understand but accept,” she said.
Her main goal this year is “to be someone my daughter grows up to be proud of. This year, my goals are to work on advancing my skills and techniques further and working on some larger-scale exterior projects,” Dawn said.
Working with public art groups
Improving the number and quality of public art is a current priority for the cities of Moline, Rock Island and Davenport. Moline has adopted an ambitious Public Art and Placemaking Plan (and created a new Public Art Commission), and the Downtown Partnership also has a new Public Art Committee.
For years, DDP had a robust arts and culture committee that helped bring the sculptures and many of the murals that you see downtown today, Espey said. “You could say DDP’s role in leading art projects slowed down over the last decade – for a gamut of reasons – staffing changes, other priorities had taken precedence, and maybe even a little complacency.”
Through the process of creating a new DDP master plan, they identified a number of opportunities to activate downtown Davenport through the arts, and it re-emphasized the importance of getting back into the space of helping lead art priorities downtown, Espey said. “One of the first things we did upon finalizing the master plan was get a group back together to start identifying opportunities and prioritizing projects. Atlanta is a member of the DDP Public Art Committee (Quad City Arts chief Kevin Maynard is the Chair). Beyond wanting to tap into her creative eye, her enthusiasm to get things done is exactly why we wanted to make sure she had a seat at the table.”
DDP will be participating in the QC Arts sculpture program – “we’re looking to do at least one large mural project a year and we currently are working with Streamline Architects on a design plan for five key downtown alleyways,” she said. Dawn said she’s looking forward to taking part in both downtown Davenport and Moline’s public art plans.
“We’ve definitely talked at length about how much we love Moline’s public art and placemaking plan — it’s really impressive!,” Espey said, noting DDP executive director Kyle Carter is the Chamber’s VP of Place Management. “We convene meetings for all the downtown directors and at our last meeting, Moline’s plan was the featured topic. There are plenty of shared goals and elements within the plan that each of our downtowns can benefit from.”