Gina Franco, 38, public artist
You might not know Gina Franco. But if your Instagram game is on point, it’s possible you posed in front of one of her vibrant, pop art inspired murals. Like the Rainbow Alley or any of the rotating lineup or murals tucked behind an empty Davie Street building downtown.
She wasn’t planning to be a professional artist. But here she is – one of the most Instagramed artists in Greensboro.
Gina attended Grimsley High School and took a practical route with her college education, studying business management and human resources at Guilford College in the hopes of finding a stable career to support her son.
“Art was not even on the radar,” she says.
But she always enjoyed drawing as a kid. And she loved the few art classes she took at Guilford.
After college, she got a steady gig serving as a teaching assistant with Guilford County Schools.
One year she volunteered to paint a library mural. Her part-time paid hobby as a painter took off from there, with portraits, mural projects, and the occasional logo design.
“I didn’t even look at it as a means to support myself. For me it was a side hustle,” she says.
Then she started pitching herself for mural commissions, using a website where patrons post requests for artist proposals all over the world. Locally, she booked two very visible projects: the murals at Westerwood Tavern and the Interactive Resource Center.
The Westerwood project was a placemaking mural. She wandered around the neighborhood to get an idea of what it was like. The mural includes scenes from across neighborhood.
For the IRC project, she worked with Executive Director, Michelle Kennedy around a theme – “Housing is a human right.” It’s a series of front doors and one giant key. It was by far the biggest project she had ever done.
“I remember not even knowing what the building looked like. Then I got there and said, ‘That is the biggest wall I have ever seen.’”
She did it all by herself. She wasn’t comfortable seeking assistance – and she wanted to prove she could do it.
In the last few years, her part-time gig has boomed. She got commissions in Florida, Georgia, and Colorado. She did businesses in and around North Carolina.
About a year ago, she started a passion project – a tiny spot on the back of an empty commercial building on Davie Street, which is easily visible to the Friendly Avenue traffic. She approached the property owner and asked if she could use the spot to paint a new mural every few months. She buys the paint herself.
“I have 100 ideas for walls, but I only have one wall,” Gina says. “I didn’t know if anyone was even going to show up. I just knew I had to do it.”
She did a candy heart-themed mural for Valentine’s Day. Cute rows of diamonds. A Sailor Jerry-esque mom tattoo. A “Treat Yo Self” message with sprinkles. All repetitive patterns and bold colors.
Suddenly, an underutilized space was full of life.
“There’s a lot of consideration of how someone will interact with it,” she says. “The fun part is everybody’s caption.”
With one little wall, people opened up their lives to Gina, sharing their stories as they tagged her on Instagram. Every post told a different story, of relationships, of hardships, of victories.
When she was touching up her Valentine’s day mural – with it’s “Love Wins” candy heart – she got an unexpected visit from a breathless young woman.
“She’s like, ‘I am so glad I saw this wall this morning. It was a sign,’” Gina recalls. The woman had been debating whether to end her pregnancy. But the mural decided it – she was going to keep the baby. “She was like, ‘I knew I couldn’t do it.’ It was a lot.”
She finds the feedback addicting.
“To think that space was just some empty vacant parking lot with some weeds. And now it’s gathering place, a destination,” she says.
In August, she resigned her school gig to make art her full-time job. It was time. Her son was all grown up. And her painting was consuming all her attention.
Her first big project after the transition: the Rainbow Alley, a project with Downtown Greensboro Inc. The formerly gloomy back alley off Elm Street is now a bright, meandering path worthy of a Dr. Seuss book illustration.
It was a learning process. She was working with an assistant for the first time. The design changed as soon as she got into the space. She ended up having to buy more paint daily.
“It’s hilarious how much paint I thought I was going to use compared to what I needed,” she says.
It wasn’t even complete and people were already taking pics.
“It doesn’t feel like a job,” Gina says.