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Many communities have certain landmarks which people hold dear in their hearts. For the community of Grand Rapids, the Pink Elephant, located near Oakland Park, is known both near and far. Built in the 1960s, the sculpture was in need of some tender loving care. The beloved Pink Elephant began to be transformed with the help of the MacRostie Art Center during United Way of 1000 Lakes’ Day of Action, which took place during this year’s summer solstice.

Executive Director of the MacRostie Art Center Katie Marshall and Communications Coordinator Whitney Leming-Salisbury took the lead on the project when the organization was approached by United Way of 1000 Lakes. Leming-Salisbury also works as a designer and independent illustrator.

“This project was an awesome opportunity to not only use my own illustration concepts, but also watch them breathe new life into such an iconic piece of community art,” said Leming-Salisbury of the Pink Elephant project.

As a community member who is originally from Grand Rapids, Leming-Salisbury said this project was very important to her, specifically when it came to “doing it right and getting community input on the design.”

Homeowner of the house where the Pink Elephant resides, Erin McKinney, her family, community members and United Way of 1000 Lakes all approved the design proposed by Leming-Salisbury before painting began. Much of the design had to be based on the current condition of the elephant. With damage on the surface, including decay and chipping, Leming-Salisbury created a pattern to hide some of the irreversible damage. The body was sanded down and concrete putty was used to even out the surface. And, of course, the quintessential pink color was kept.

McKinney’s daughter, Emma, was able to help complete the Pink Elephant’s makeover and has named the sculpture “Ellie.”

“She’s been here since the house was built in the ‘60s,” McKinney remarked during the United Way of 1000 Lakes Day of Action. “Everybody knows the Pink Elephant. Everybody.”

The project took longer than expected as the surface was prepped for painting, but Leming-Salisbury believes the wait was worth it.

“When it comes to valued community artwork and landmarks like ‘Ellie’ the Pink Elephant, it is imperative to take the time to do everything ethically, inclusively and transparently. Community art is about empowering and sustaining local narratives and identities,” explained Leming-Salisbury. “My hope is that the people of Oakland Park, and Grand Rapids as a whole, can feel pride in their neighborhood narratives and continue to be as vibrant and welcoming as ever—just like the Pink Elephant.”

“When United Way contacted us about the Pink Elephant project, it seemed like a great way for the MAC to participate in the community-wide Day of Action,” said Marshall. “We’re big advocates for public art, and the Pink Elephant is one of the most iconic pieces of public art in Grand Rapids. We were happy to be a part of preserving it for many more years to come.”

Reprinted with permission from Grand Rapids Herald Review.

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