No matter the season, there’s a garden in bloom in the 300 block of Lancaster city’s North Mary Street.
It’s actually a mural, painted on the walls of a two-story house by artists from the Friendship Heart Gallery & Studio. The owners of the house, Colin and Julia Morrell, enjoyed seeing their house’s exterior walls sprout a garden and become a local destination.
And it won’t be the only mural by Friendship artists to grace the streets of Lancaster; another is planned for Rachel’s Cafe and Creperie this fall.
The Friendship Heart Gallery & Studio is a creative arts group of artists with intellectual disability and autism. Its primary gallery and studio is at 118 N. Water St. Suite 101, in Lancaster city; in December, the organization opened a second studio at 1159 E. Oregon Road, Lititz, adjacent to Friendship Community’s main office.
The North Mary Street mural, though, was the brainchild of Colin Morrell. It served as a way to help the Friendship artists connect with the community, but it also helped Colin Morrell find a new purpose after a major life change.
The Morrells owned Aussie & the Fox, a former West King Street restaurant in Lancaster city. The couple decided to close the restaurant in 2018.
“It was the right decision,” Morrell says. “We wanted to start a family, the restaurant was very hard work for both of us, and a buyer showed up at the right time.”
They did start that family: daughter Phoebe is 2, and son Wesley is 6 months old. But stepping away from the business wasn’t easy.
“In time I began to feel lost and depressed. I missed the interaction with the staff and customers at the restaurant,” Morrell says. “Then a colleague reminded me how much I had enjoyed the Friendship paintings that were displayed at the restaurant. It made me reach out to the artists, and the mural project was born. It became quite a community project, and I enjoyed making it happen.”
Bringing the vision to life
The mural was painted over a span of seven days in September 2021. The Friendship Heart artists painted from 9:30 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. daily, Morrell says, working in rotating groups of three and four.
In total, Colin says, 52 artists from the Friendship Heart Studio participated, and around six professional artists also lent their efforts.
In his negotiations to make the project a reality, Morrell secured paint from Home Depot and rented a forklift from Gap Power Rentals — two “forever partners” in ongoing Friendship Heart murals, Morrell says. Lowe’s also contributed painting tools.
Mast Film Co. produced a short documentary about the project, “The Garden.” It’s available to watch at mastfilm.co/ourfilms/the-garden.
“It captures the process beautifully, from the idea taking roots through the days of the artists painting the mural,” Morrell says about the documentary.
After the work painting the mural was done, the next step was protecting it. Morrell says the artwork is coated with a product called Mural Shield, which is a nontoxic coating to ensure protection from the elements and vandals.
Morrell has just negotiated another outdoor mural on behalf of the Friendship Heart group. This one will bring a Parisian spring theme to the walls of Rachel’s Cafe & Creperie, 201 W. Walnut St. Artists are scheduled to begin work on the painting in September.
“I have helped the Friendship Heart community organization jump on this as a possibility and connected the dots so now I can step back and cheer it on from the side lines,” Morrell says.
Sarah Rush, Lancaster city studio manager for Friendship Heart, says “The Garden” mural was the perfect opportunity for Friendship artists.
“Our artists were so excited to help design and paint it,” she says. “It was a great opportunity for them to get connected with the community and work on a larger scale. We’re definitely looking forward to more opportunities like this.”
Rush says she finds people who see works by Friendship Heart artists are eager to learn more about the program, which has the vision statement “Expressing Capabilities.”
“What that means is that we celebrate the artists’ personalities and talents through free expression and collaboration,” Rush says.
The studio and gallery locations are extensions of the Friendship Community, a nonprofit organization serving serving individuals with intellectual disability and autism. It started in 2007 as a club of 12 budding artists wanting to get together for painting and socializing. They gathered in a room stocked with all sorts of crafts materials, and Rush says that their first finished products included painted glass vases, wooden toys and canvas paintings. The club grew over the years and moved from Ephrata to Lancaster in 2013, when the club transitioned to an officially licensed day services program while maintaining two club evenings per week.
“We’re proud of our gallery,” says Rush. “We’ve got updated lighting and movable walls, and we house an individual portfolio for each artist.”
Its galleries also offer items for sale by the artists, including jewelry, postcards and home decor.
As for the murals program, it is now expected to become an annual event, a fact that delights Colin Morrell as much as the artists. But the Morrell family has some big changes coming, too.
By the end of the year, they’re planning to move to Australia. “The Garden” mural will remain intact, Morrell says. He and his wife have consulted a real estate attorney about having the mural grandfathered into the building and stated in a sales agreement that the mural will remain. Those responsibilities alone will bring Morrell back to Lancaster on occasion.
“All upkeep and maintenance will be my responsibility for life,” Morrell says, “but the mural will stay for life.”