Nate Reilly’s faces – all 50 of them – welcome visitors to the United States when they cross the Canadian border in Niagara Falls, New York. The cheerful painted faces – young and old – beam beneath an exhortation to “Take a smile, leave a smile.”
Thousands of people see Nate’s faces every day.
Reilly, a junior in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, created this color block mural in his hometown, inspired by a bike ride.
Growing up in Niagara Falls, Reilly cycled past bridge underpasses and blank expanses of concrete and wondered whether they could be a canvas. He went to the city website, filled out a complaint form and offered to paint. The mayor called and asked for a mock-up.
Reilly secured his first contracted mural and began to see the connections between public art and public policy that he’s now exploring at Cornell.
It wasn’t a solo project. The NF Murals Project, part of a public art initiative in the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, helped him cut through red tape. Other local artists, including his brother, Josh Reilly ’21, helped with the painting.
The faces represent people in the community. One shows a little boy who displayed such joy when he came to watch the painting that Reilly made him part of it.
“I simply want people to smile when they see this mural,” Reilly said. “I want them to feel welcomed, to have hope.”
Niagara Falls noticed. “The mural is optimistic, joyful and vibrant, just like this community,” local artist Tyshaun Tyson told the Niagara County Tribune/Sentinel, one of two local papers to cover the project. “It is an inspiring representation of Niagara Falls and the power that lies within welcoming people of all backgrounds and perspectives to our city.”
Reilly has set up his Cornell studies to combine his passion for painting with his passion for influencing policy. He is minoring in art and his major, through the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, is public administration and management. This spring, he is participating in the Cornell in Washington program, where he interns with Washington Performing Arts, a nonprofit renowned for presenting art of all types to the public in Washington, D.C., and beyond.
“I'm working to jumpstart my artistic career while trying to enhance the arts from a systemic and policy-oriented lens,” he said.
Cornell in Washington is uniquely positioned to make those sorts of combinations possible. “The program offers an opportunity to be immersed in politics and the latest policy debates in Congress, but there are also wonderful internships in D.C. for students in every major and with any interest,” said John Cawley, director of Cornell in Washington and professor of public policy and of economics.
“It’s really inspiring when you see students like Nate excel in multiple areas,” Cawley said, “such as social science and the arts, and then combine their passions to blaze a new trail and make a unique contribution.”
Jim Hanchett is assistant dean of communications for the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.