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Waking Sleeping Giants

November 9, 2023

Members of the Springville community attending the unveiling of artist Mandi Caskey's mural, A Wish on the Wind, 2023.

Two blue cars parked in front of a brick storefront with a sign that says LAB
The Lab, a communal artspace in Springville, New York. Photo: Jeff Mace
"Max tells me that working with children is something new for you?"
"Yeah," Mandi Caskey says, a little mischievously, "It's been a lot of fun."

We’re in Springville, New York, a forty-minute drive from the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, standing in a communal artspace with the muralist Mandi Caskey, aka Miss Birdie. This is one of the satellite workshop spaces of the Springville Arts Center (SCA), and it feels like a clubhouse: a half-painted mural stretches across one wall with art and posters decking out every other available inch; cups stuffed with markers or filled with paint line a worktable, otherwise scattered with loose sheets of paper from seven different projects; a library of eclectic books spills from shelves to stack next to a couple of well-worn couches. Peer through a doorway on the opposite wall and it leads to a shop stacked with piles of wood. Look in the back corner and you see an antique tricycle sitting next to a large-format digital printer. 

And abuzz in the space are people, several groups of artworkers, like a paint-splattered Depression-era Federal Arts Project: a corps of teens who are dedicated to creating a rumored one thousand works of public art in Springville; a handful of older gentlemen sanding down railings in the workshop; two of the proceedings’ organizers Alisia Glaser and Max Collins; and Mandi Caskey herself.


A woman and man standing in front of students raising their hands
Mandi Caskey and Max Collins with students. Photo: Jeff Mace

The day before Caskey was leading a workshop for the second-to-fourth grade contingent of the summer youth program runs. The partially complete mural on the wall is a replica-in-miniature of the beautiful work-in-progress shaping up a few doors down on the side of an old brick building—except this one has a mustache. 

Prior to that Caskey bore witness to the SCA’s tween cohort. The plan was to take cardboard boxes and recreate the city of Springville. The boys thought it would be more fun to make themselves giant robots.

Caskey is at ease in the buoyant, slightly chaotic atmosphere. Springville has strong resonances for Caskey with her hometown of Lima, Ohio. When offered the chance to paint a mural in a rural setting, rather than the typical urban environment, Caskey leaped at it.

A woman with a green shirt and hair in a bun facing a group of students in front of a colorful mural
Mandi Caskey with students in front of their mural. Photo: Jeff Mace

“I didn’t step foot into an art museum until I was a freshman in college,” Caskey says. There’s a tendency to believe that the Internet has  made all culture available to all people, but if you grow up in a small town there may be no role models to show you that it’s possible to have a life in the arts. 

Caskey asked herself, “Why am I focusing on huge cities when the people that really need it are in rural towns?” 


When today’s group of young people arrives, Max Collins takes the group on a tour of the mural work that’s already in progress around the city, which include a couple of very popular ones with the youth: Life in the Time of COVID-19: Space Cats and another featuring a gang of anthropomorphic blue blobs running amok, before ending the tour with Caskey’s work-in-progress.

The brick wall where her mural stands used to belong to the Witter-Davis Furniture Company, now out of business. Where a faded hand-painted sign once looked out on traffic coming into Springville from the South, now is a mural featuring a blue-green giantess sleeping in the hills of Springville nestled among the likenesses of buildings that you can pick out around the town even from where you stand.

A mural on a brick wall of a green giantess sleeping with a colorful town growing atop her, with a blue SUV parked in front
Mandi Caskey's mural, A Wish on the Wind, 2023. Photo: Brenda Bieger

“I knew I had to be aware of the town's history. Maybe they would want to see a little bit more,” Caskey says. “In this case, I actually looked into the history of the land itself. The piece is a representation of the Indigenous land and the stories that they used to tell.” Caskey visited the historical society where she saw an old Seneca Nation map of the region illustrated with rocky giants. The Indigenous people in what is now Springville told stories to their children of giants sleeping in the hills that, if you misbehaved, would wake and take you away.

“We like to blame small towns for a lot of things, but the truth is that we neglect them so much,” Caskey says. “Being in small towns and activating them with programs such as this is really beneficial to people: to start learning more about art, to start talking about its importance. You can see how it impacts people.”

After their arts workshop the kids in the program will go on to another facet of the program: making films, plays, and musicals led by a group of summer residents recruited from local colleges. The program is completely free to school district members.

“What colors do you think the sky should be?” Caskey asks the kids, as they shout out responses.

As the group files back to the workshop, they take up paints and markers filling in details of the mural that was started on the office walls. Eventually, brushes are put down in favor of dipping hands into the acrylic, and it’s not long before the indoor mural has spontaneously grown a field of hands—all different sizes and colors. No one orders it and no one forbids it, it’s just something the kids want to do. 

A group of young people makes silly phases posing in front of a color painting
Mandi Caskey poses with a group of young Springville residents. Photo: Jeff Mace


Learn more about Mandi Caskey's experience in Springville