Flint, MI—The Flint Public Art Project (FPAP), a nonprofit that has brought over 300 temporary and permanent murals to the walls of buildings across the city, will soon see a change in leadership.
Joe Schipani, who has served as the organization’s executive director since 2015, is moving to Akumal, Mexico, at the end of this month, ushering in a familiar face as the new leader: Sandra Branch, FPAP’s long-time vice president.
“Sandra has been part of the whole thing since its conception,” Schipani said of why Branch was the right person to replace him. “The murals were her idea, and I just figured out a way to … fine tune it and make it marketable.”
Schipani said he was incredibly confident in Branch and noted that while he will be stepping into a more operations-focused role, both leaders agree that the real stars of the organization are its artists and the Flint community.
“All we’re doing is changing a face,” Schipani said. “I don’t feel like it’s my legacy. I think it’s our legacy because we’ve all created it together.”
‘I wanted to paint my town pretty since I was 11 years old’
For her part, Branch told Flint Beat she’s been happy to work a little more “behind-the-scenes” for FPAP until now. After all, her goal to revitalize her hometown through art was being met whether she was the face of the project or not.
“I wanted to paint my town pretty since I was 11 years old,” Branch said.
The artist and soon-to-be executive director explained that while driving with her family through Cincinnati at that age, she had seen a mural’s colorful paint off of the highway and convinced her dad to drive over to let her experience it up close.
“He said, ‘They just painted that rainbow on that building to brighten up the area. It’s blighted, it’s bad,’” she recalled her father telling her. “But it drew me from the expressway over there, so I knew that that was something I wanted to do for my city eventually.”
And eventually, she did.
When Branch returned to Flint from New Orleans in the mid-1980s, she found boarded up spaces, graffiti and opportunity.
“Seeing all these open, abandoned buildings sparked something in me,” she explained. “And I said, ‘I’m an artist, what can I do?’”
What Branch did was bring more art programming to schools and work with area graffiti artists to elevate their aerosol skills into something beneficial for the greater community.
“In 2014, I started working with aerosol artists that were tagging up the city, and what I did was I went and found out who belonged to these tags,” she said, referring to the term for a street artist’s signature. “Then I went to their job, or home, or wherever they were—under a bridge, because a lot of them were homeless—and I made a proposal that if they came in partnership with me … I would provide a safe space for them to develop their art.”
Then, when she and Schipani began formalizing FPAP into a standalone nonprofit, it became clear that even more could be done to support local art and artists.
With Branch’s Flint community connections and Schipani’s fundraising and organizing chops, the pair soon began welcoming artists from beyond Flint’s borders to support mural festivals and placemaking activities across the city.
“We would collaborate our local artists with a professional muralist and then everybody would learn, everybody would get inspired, and it’s a back and forth thing,” Branch said.
‘One of the three pieces of furniture I’m taking is that dining room table’
In recent years, FPAP has shepherded a plethora of public art across Flint, with over 300 murals being painted by roughly 150 local, national and international artists—many of whom Schipani shuttled, fed and housed while they worked on the city’s walls.
“One of the three pieces of furniture I’m taking is that dining room table,” Schipani said of his impending move to Mexico. “Because there’s been endless birthday parties, dinners, conversations, watching people paint, draw, do all this other stuff.”
Schipani smiled while explaining that he actually hates the clunky, partially broken antique table, but he can’t bear to leave behind the memories he’s made around it.
Those memories were on display at Schipani’s going away party at Totem Books on April 6, 2023, where artists and Flint residents swapped their own stories over pizza and beer.
“Oh, if it wasn’t for Flint Public Art Project and Joe, I wouldn’t be painting murals right now,” local tattoo artist Johnny Fletcher told Flint Beat. “Joe just really … he pushes me a lot, you know, like he pushes me to be the best I can be.”
Fletcher said he’d only been spray painting for less than a year, but he now has 13 murals in Flint and two in Mexico thanks to Schipani and the creative community’s encouragement.
Other artists noted how grateful they were to Schipani for “doing the paperwork” so they could focus on their art over the years, and Hayley Garner, a UK-based artist, wrote a note to Flint Beat about her experience working with Schipani.
Aside from artists, community members also shared their thoughts on the departing FPAP director’s work in Flint.
“I don’t think people are aware of the philanthropy Joe did through the Flint Public Art Project,” said Aron McCormick, store manager at Totem, a building which sports multiple murals done through FPAP artists. “I just feel like … in order to appreciate Joe’s legacy, you have to first realize this was an unpaid position.”
When asked about not being paid, Shipani shrugged it off.
“I’ve done that voluntarily without a paycheck,” he said. “But I’ve gotten paid by watching these guys grow. So that to me, is worth more than a million dollars, you know, in my pocket. To watch them be successful is worth more than any amount of money you could give me.”
‘We want to represent people’
Schipani said that from his new, remote role he will focus on building upon what FPAP has already done.
That includes putting together a book of Flint’s murals and helping fine tune tours and interactivity, like poems about FPAP murals accessed via smartphone, with the hundreds of works already around Flint.
Additionally, he and Branch both promised that the organization’s annual event, the Free City Mural Festival, will remain intact even if other approaches are taken to expand or change FPAP’s programming, aside.
“We’re trying to inspire a movement of city interaction and community service,” Branch said, adding that she will be reaching out to local artists and residents for their ideas on how FPAP can better serve Flint. “We want to represent people. We want them to feel that they’re part of this, that they have ownership in our program.”
Back at his going away party, Schipani was all smiles and hugs, though he said his departure didn’t yet seem real after 15 years in Flint.
Still, Schipani said, he is thrilled to see what Branch brings to the Flint Public Art Project and the community overall.
“I’m just excited,” he said. “I’m excited to see this grow and develop and unfold, and I’m excited to see what Sandra brings because she’s such an amazing, talented person. She’s going to bring so much great new energy to it and build it even more.”
Sandy and Joe have personally changed my life.
Good ppl good program glad to be a part.
I’m so proud of what Joe and the Flint Public Art Project has accomplished in my home town. Looking forward to seeing how Sandra Branch shapes her childhood dream.
Please repair the damage to the Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha mural on Flushing Rd. It’s disgusting that it hasn’t been repaired all this time.
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