When public artist Mary Ryan wakes up early in the morning during a project week, she gathers her supplies, puts on her paint-covered shoes and says goodbye to her husband before heading off to paint alone for eight hours — this week, in downtown Elon. 

Ryan, founder of Mary E D Ryan Art, has been doing public art for five years, after previously working in healthcare. She painted a colorful crosswalk next to Magerk’s Pub and Grill last month and is now back on West Lebanon Avenue to paint a street mural on top of parking spaces, which when finished, will house outdoor seating spaces. 

The design will have leaves, a blue sky and trees, and Ryan said she chose the nature-themed design after collaborating with the town. According to Ryan, the difference between public art and gallery art is that it’s accessible to everyone.

“Public art is so fun and colorful, and it really cheers things up,” Ryan said. “Everybody gets to enjoy it anytime they go by.”

The crosswalk she finished last month was just the beginning of her work in town. She said there is a lot of opportunity to bring more public art to Elon, and she prides herself on being flexible. Each city, Ryan said, has its own culture, and she must work with town representatives to bring what they want to the space. 

Ryan paints alone, even for larger projects, because she said it allows her creative freedom. 

“It’s such a different experience than working in a studio by yourself,” Ryan said. “I enjoy that too, but I really prefer to work with the community and work with the public … I still take surveys from people, like, ‘What do you think should be here? What do you think would work on this?’ And that’s really fun because people come up with all kinds of ideas that I might not have thought of.” 

Ryan is not a resident of Elon and lives about 30 minutes away in Rockingham County. Before this project, she was not familiar with Elon but discovered the town when Downtown Development Director Jill Weston asked her to paint its first public art display. 

When Weston started in her position five months ago, her first goal was to bring art to the town. 

“People are wanting more than just a brick building to look at now downtown,” Weston said. “They want historic buildings and art and just culture.” 

Quinn Ray serves on Elon’s Town Council and is also an advocate for public art in the town. He said having this display is beneficial for everyone in the community, including students, businesses and town residents. 

“It goes over a little bit better with people when we’re actually doing it instead of asking other people to do it,” Ray said. “It’ll show that the town actually cares about … the vibe of the downtown.” 

Ryan’s goal with this project is to display something everyone can appreciate while sitting outdoors and having a meal. From local restaurants such as Magerk’s and TANGENT Eat+Bar, the mural space became an outdoor dining area during the pandemic. Now a permanent fixture, Ryan’s new design sits atop the space. 

When she is finished with this project, Ryan said she hopes to come back and do more in Elon, as public art can brighten up a space and draw outsiders in. She also said she predicts that children will appreciate the public street art more than most.

“Kids really are going like this one because it’s down at their level, it’s on the ground,” Ryan said. “It’s a different experience to sit in a dining area that is on top of a mural instead of a parking lot.”