WALL\THERAPY: Making a difference in Rochester one wall at a time

Jul 16, 2017

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Thumbnail for WALL\THERAPY: Making a difference in Rochester one wall at a time


By Aaron Garland

Above photo by Mark Deff: Left WALL\THERAPY painting, Untitled - (Capture), by Ever (Argentina) and Gaia (Baltimore, Md.); right work, "Giant Storybook Project Mural," by Herakut (Germany)

It’s those times when Erich Lehman observes people in the City of Rochester carefully taking in outdoor public art that he knows WALL\THERAPY has done its job.

Those instances are frequent thanks to WALL\THERAPY, a street mural campaign that decks buildings across the city in massive paintings by talented artists to offer inspiration and foster community harmony.

One such moment was in 2012, when Lehman, co-curator and lead organizer of WALL\THERAPY, was approached by several individuals who expressed an appreciation for the program’s effort to improve the area.

“Thank you. Nobody cares about our neighborhood,” Lehman recalls hearing.

WALL\THERAPY was in its early stages then, but it was that precise moment, according to Lehman, that he learned its potential.

“It was, ‘Ahhh, OK. THAT is what this is about,’” Lehman said.

Since then, WALL\THERAPY has grown considerably and adorned the city with a mass of meaningful street art.The sound of camera shutters near WALL\THERAPY works and groups taking self-directed tours to check out the murals have become common. The campaign is equal parts beautiful and powerful.

“You have little kids just raptly staring, watching people paint, like, ‘What is this?’ That, for us, is huge,” said Lehman, the Premedia Facilities Coordinator in CIAS’ School of Media Sciences. He also graduated from the school with undergraduate (1997) and graduate (1999) degrees.

Photo by Mark Deff; "Love is Sacrifice" by Jeff Soto (Fullerton, Calif.) and Maxx242 (Southern California)

WALL\THERAPY produces public art in Rochester during an annual week-long festival. Around 100 buildings have been part of the initiative and wear stunning murals, ranging from one story to five stories high.

After taking a short hiatus in 2016, WALL\THERAPY is back in 2017.

This year’s festival is set for July 22-30 and will host 10 featured artists who will give Rochester its next crop of murals. Painting will officially begin on Saturday, July 22, although a few local artists have already started work on their walls. Additionally, on July 29, a “block party” and an inaugural arts and activism conference will be held by WALL\THERAPY at downtown locations.

Photo by Erich Lehman; "Rochester Dream" by Daze (New York City)

First on July 29, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Little Theatre, 240 East Ave., WALL\THERAPY will present a free conference exploring the intersection of social change, community activism and creative practice has been planned to welcome a discussion among participating artists, organizers, scholars and the community. Dr. Jessica Pabón-Colón, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY New Paltz, is the event’s keynote speaker. Art project spotlights and panel discussions are also on the docket.

Later that day, the block party is slated for 6:30-11 p.m. at Kaleidoscope Collective, 936 Exchange St., Building A. Local soul singer Danielle Ponder and the Tomorrow People will perform, while an artist market featuring local artists and craftsfolk and food trucks will set up outside in the parking lot. Donations to WALL\THERAPY will be accepted.


Dr. Ian Wilson, Medical Director of Rochester Endovascular, started the art project, Lehman said, to create “a place to go to collect and inspire yourself.” Since beginning in 2011 under a different name, Visual Intervention, the initiative has been transforming Rochester into a free, public art gallery open 24/7. It provides respite for those seeking it and promotes community pride and safer environments.Local, national and international artists alike — many of them world-renowned, legendary street painters — have combined to make 115-plus murals in Rochester.  

Five of this year’s muralists are based in Rochester, with the other five being based in California, Arizona, New Jersey and New York City, respectively. One artist grew up in Rochester and has been using her time in the last year to reconnect with her birth city.

Photo by Erich Lehman; Untitled - (Martin Luther King) by Case (Germany)

This year’s curation has taken a more politically active stance. Shortly after November’s presidential election, program leaders tweaked 2017’s planned narrative storytelling theme, shifting it to a more politically-driven focus. A roster of political activist-minded individuals who speak loudly with — and skillfully use — their brushes and spray-paint cans was assembled. The end result is a group that is well suited for this year’s curation.

“Our goal is giving a voice to people whose voices are being suppressed in our current political climate,” Lehman said. “There are citizens with a lot of concerns, and we want to positively share those concerns.”

The 2017 artists include Ian Kuali’I (California), Sean Lugo (New Jersey), La Morena (Arizona), Aubrey Roemer (Rochester/New York City), Sarah C. Rutherford (Rochester), Jess X Snow (NYC) and Todd Stahl (Rochester; also a graduate of the MST in art education program in the School of Art). There are also three high school students participating on behalf of Roc Paint Division, a City of Rochester youth mural arts program: Etana Browne, Nzinga Muhammad and Kaori-Mei Stephens.

“We’re working really hard on our curation for this one, to make it different,” Lehman said.


WALL\THERAPY’s ethos was built on believing in something. Many have found belief in the project’s objectives, with testimonials and accolades to prove it.

WALL\THERAPY — which gets its capital to pay artists, photographers and videographers from crowdfunding efforts and grants — was honored by CITY Newspaper as Rochester’s best art exhibition in 2015 and best group or person improving the community in both 2015 and 2016.

A total of 75 artists have used Rochester structures as their canvases so far through the project, with 10 more soon to join the “family” that’s improved the city’s aesthetic.  

Photo by Mark Deff; "Flower Power" by Icy and Sot (New York City)

To view the full scope of the project, spectators are required to do some exploring. In a calculated move, the murals hit every section of the city.

“I want people to get out and see what else is going on in their city, and to care about everyone who lives here,” said Lehman, who, along with other organizers, runs WALL\THERAPY on a volunteer basis.


Chris Riesenberger cares. That’s why he reached out to WALL\THERAPY — an effort that led to better vibes, safety and looks in an area in need of all three.

For years, the warehouse he worked in was the target of recurring thefts and vandalism that defaced the building, rather than beautify it. Riesenberger has long worked in sales at Blackout Distribution, a BMX bike and parts provider situated on the corner of Greenleaf Street and Atlantic Avenue in Rochester.

“It’s not in the greatest of neighborhoods,” Riesenberger said.

Photo by Mark Deff; "Avery" by Jarus (Canada)

Not long ago, Riesenberger kept gallons of white paint in stock in preparation of masking the “bad graffiti” the property was being tagged with on an almost weekly basis.

“All of a sudden I’m looking at our building and we have 20 different shades of white splotches all over,” Riesenberger said of the constant touch-up jobs. “It started getting kind of old.”

Riesenberger approached the owner of the building — which also houses Kink BMX — with a potential solution. Riesenberger had known Lehman for years, and was abreast of the new visual art project he was involved with. Once Riesenberger found out WALL\THERAPY doesn’t charge property owners for its services, he made an all-in proposal.

I want to paint the whole building,” Riesenberger remembers telling Lehman, who thought he was kidding. After all, the warehouse is 100,000-square-feet, according to Riesenberger, who was dead serious.

“I saw the potential in this becoming a destination spot for people in the city,” Riesenberger said.

In 2013, Pixel Pancho of Italy touched his brush to the structure’s wall and gave it its first therapy session, an approximately 30-foot mural. Now 80 percent of the building, Riesenberger estimates, is covered by WALL\THERAPY murals that wrap the perimeter. There are just four sections that remain open. Two of them will be filled in at this year’s festival while Riesenberger said he’s saving the final one for Lehman to paint.

Photo by Jason Wilder; "Pebbles" by Andreas Englund (Sweden). This is one of the many paintings that has added a visual element to the warehouse on Greenleaf and Atlantic.

Over the last four years, the murals and graffiti have wiped out the vandalism. A building that once teemed with undesirable tags and walls colored multiple shades of white has become one of WALL\THERAPY’s must-see displays.

“We get out of work at 6 p.m. and there are always people here,” Riesenberger said. “There are people just walking around taking pictures of buildings. I’ve seen a lot of businesses use us for backdrops for photoshoots.  

“I think it’s the coolest thing ever. I’m seriously glad to be part of what they do. (Lehman and Dr. Ian Wilson) rule. They’re great dudes with great hearts, to want to do this kind of thing for the city.”

In Riesenberger’s eyes, the murals have spawned augmented safety, as well. Prior to WALL\THERAPY, mischief flourished near the warehouse. Riesenberger remembers the time a laptop was stolen from a room inside the building, amid other objectionable activity. But the former misconduct hotspot has cooled greatly, said Riesenberger, who attributes much of the crime reduction to WALL\THERAPY.

Passersby stop to take photos of and admire the sprawling, attention-grabbing art. Increased foot traffic helps explain why, according to Riesenberger, there have been no theft issues during Blackout Distribution’s WALL\THERAPY era. The worst vandalism offense Riesenberger can recall is a six-inch mark, and incidents like that are few and far between. It’s truly therapy on a wall.

“It’s a complete city respect thing that is a huge bonus, on top of having the coolest building in the city,” Riesenberger said. “The neighborhood itself kind of cleaned up a little bit in the process, too. We walk out of here and really have no problems at all.”

Photo by Erich Lehman; “Peeta” by Peeta (Italy)

Kink BMX and Blackout Distribution’s neighbor on Atlantic, heating and cooling wholesaler Meier Supply, has multiple WALL\THERAPY works, a response to seeing what was going on next door. That type of chain reaction is what Lehman hopes can be replicated, over and over: appealing paintings go up, causing surrounding business owners to take added pride in their areas.

“I started thinking of the murals as seeds,” Lehman said. “You plant the seed, but it’s up to the neighborhood to nurture and grow.”


Word about WALL\THERAPY has traveled far, and rapidly, according to Lehman. When he attended NuArt, a Norwegian street art festival, last year, fellow fest-goers knew of and complimented the work of WALL\THERAPY. And the Google Analytics of wall-therapy.com show that the site has had visitors from more than 2,000 cities and 100 countries, Lehman said.

“We’ve been told we are one of the top festivals out there,” Lehman said, “largely because of our very personal touch and our artist-centric and community-centric focus. It’s something we’re very proud of.”

Photo by Jason Wilder; "Payback" by Onur and Wes21 (Solothurn, Switzerland)

Lehman encourages the public to speak with muralists and ask them questions.

“There are no velvet ropes,” Lehman said. “We want the artists to interact with the citizens of Rochester, to learn about our city and the folks who will be living with their art.”  

Not only does that teach residents about the art, but in turn, artists learn about Rochester, a city now brimming with dazzling, easily accessible murals.

“I am so thankful that they’re all here,” Lehman said of the works. “There is one mural that is going to speak to you far more than another will. We just hope you find that one.”

Visit WALL\THERAPY’s website for photos of and an interactive map of where to find each mural, a list of all featured artists, and more.