OREM — In Utah Valley University’s Woodbury Art Museum, two small boys grab paint markers and a color guide, walk into the gallery and begin to color on the paintings.
This painting in particular is a giant 40-by-60-inch, black-and-white, custom-made canvas of a comic-style rendering of teenage Medusa holding a partially eaten burger while one of her hair snakes drinks her soda. It’s hung low, specifically so the children can reach it.
On the surrounding walls are other giant comic book depictions of classical Greek monsters like a hydra, a minotaur and a cyclops — most of which are drawn by Guy Francis, a children’s book illustrator born and raised in Provo.
The exhibition, “Heroes and Villains: How Mythology Made Comics,” runs through Sept. 15 and contains 44 giant canvases with comic-style drawings of classical Greek and Roman heroes, villains and monsters from 12 artists and illustrators — and you can paint on all of them.
“I’ve never seen a museum do anything like this before. Most art museums don’t want people to paint things on their walls,” said Lisa Anderson, the museum's director, co-curator of the exhibition and adjunct art professor at Utah Valley University.
She and her co-curator, Chad Hardin, wanted to turn an art gallery into a life-size coloring book so the community could co-create works of art.
Hardin draws Harley Quinn and Wonder Woman for DC Comics and is the lead artist of the exhibit, as well as an assistant professor of art and design at UVU.
For him, “Heroes and Villains” is not only about bringing community together to interact with art but also an attempt to revitalize the world of comics by introducing it to a younger generation.
“I think with my generation, comics were sort of the thing. If you were into art and you liked to draw, comics were the rock star thing you could do. And they were everywhere,” he said.
The exhibition's 12 featured artists and animators are some of the top in the industry, and they’re all local. They include Francis, Hardin, Bill Galvan (“Archie,” “The Simpsons”), Ian Johnston (“Clipstick”), Phillip Sevy (“Tomb Raider”), Sal Velluto (“Black Panther,” “The Flash”) and Jemma Young (“Children of Elder”), with the color guides done by Travis Walton, Ryan Brown and Chynna Miller.
Hardin called in every favor he had with his fellow Utah comic artists to put in weeks of work for free in the hopes that they could bring comics back into the public sphere.
“Every blockbuster movie is based on comics, but what people don’t realize is that the comic circulation itself is a struggling market and a shrinking market. If we don’t get the younger generation to come in and give comics a try, it could all go away,” Hardin said.
Anderson and Hardin chose to use original artwork portraying traditional Greek figures partially to avoid entanglements with copyright but also to show that comic book characters are basically mythological heroes in masks.
“There is a great amount of connection between Superman and Hercules. All of the modern comic book characters that we have have roots in mythology,” Anderson said. “People love comic books, but they don’t consider the origins of the characters beyond the stories that they know. We wanted to introduce the community to the deeper story.”
Fitting the comic book focus into the creation of the exhibition was “an epic undertaking,” Hardin said.
The co-curators gave the featured artists the task of looking at the characters they usually draw and figuring out what archetype those characters fit into and what their traditional Greek representation could be.
When the drawings came in, the curators found that each artist had their own take on their assignment. Award-winning artist Mike Grell, known for “Superman” and “Green Arrow,” chose dramatic, intricate and classical portrayals of Zeus and other Mount Olympus gods, while Mel Milton, a former artist and video game animator for Disney, chose a wide-eyed, Disney-esque look for his portrayals of Athena and Artemis.
Hardin pulled from his job drawing the dangerous beauty Harley Quinn to depict powerful Greek femme fatales: sirens pulling unsuspecting sailors underneath the water to their deaths.
Opening up all of this hard work to the public to draw on did involve some trust, but the curators believe in building community. And the community seems to be responding, the curators are noticing, with some patrons visiting the museum to meticulously paint a cheek or a forehead or a mask for hours at a time.2 comments on this story
“It was an experiment,” Anderson said. "We weren’t sure with how they would look at the end, but we weren’t concerned with that. And actually people have really taken it very seriously. They put a lot of effort into it."
If you go …
What: Woodbury Art Museum's "Heroes and Villains: How Mythology Made Comics"
When: Through Sept. 15; Tuesday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Wednesdsay-Saturday, 11 a.m. -5 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
Where: Woodbury Art Museum, 575 E. University Parkway N250, Orem
How much: Free