Where every person has a story.

HHS Media

Where every person has a story.

HHS Media

Where every person has a story.

HHS Media

The Man: Leech creates mural, graphics for downtown Harrisonburg

The art scene has taken Harrisonburg by storm in the past 15 years, according to Jenny Burden, the director of the Arts Council of the Valley. As part of its 2040 strategic plan, they asked Harrisonburg community members what they would like their town to look like over the next few decades.

“The resounding response was, ‘we want more public art,’” Burden said.

With the push for public art coinciding with technological advancement, graphic design has become a popular art form. In A brief history of graphic design from graphic design company Custom Logos, the authors report, “Graphic design has permeated the space of business and consumerism, grabbing our attention, sparking our interests, or sometimes, blending seamlessly into our surroundings.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 211,890 graphic designers are currently employed in the U.S., but more than 50% of those designers leave the job after their first two years of work. For Harrisonburg resident, graphic designer and muralist, Matt Leech, his work has been a staple in the community since 2013.

Leech graduated from JMU in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from a major in printmaking. However, his love of art and graphic design dates all the way back to his childhood.

“I always really loved to draw growing up, but what I really loved was figuring out what felt good in space. That’s what really led me to the design area of the fine arts program. When I was there, though, I also really learned that I love working with clients. I learned I really enjoyed working with my hands and creating visuals that solve problems,” Leech said.

The Man Behind the Friendly City Look

Tim Skirven, co-founder of Earth Surprise Murals and long time friend of graphic designer Matt Leech stands next to Leech. Photo courtesy of Matt Leech (Jumana Alsaadoon)

Leech’s brand, Matt + The Leeches, was created in 2013. Leech describes his business as “creative problem solving.” The business’s main job is to develop a brand for all types of organizations. From JMU operations such as Hotel Madison, to community entities such as Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR), Leech has a wide variety of clients.

“That’s one of the things I love about getting work with local people and the downtown community because I don’t just work with them professionally. I experience their businesses, with my family and just living life here,” Leech said.

Leech values connection with his clients. In fact, most of his commissions come from word of mouth. When choosing to work with a business, he prioritizes relationships and businesses that align with his values of treating others with kindness, respect and generosity.

“I’m an introverted person. For me, that’s actually part of the appeal of what I do,” Leech said. “I get to kind of hide in the background, I get to make things that will speak for themselves, so that’s something that I enjoy. If I can make something that is seamless to people’s lives, that does just blend, they understand it, they get it and they move on. You can understand what the work is conveying. That’s a success for me.”

The marketing director for HDR, Emily Winter, has worked with Leech on many projects. This includes the Harrisonburg Music Series.

“For a brand like us where we’re representing a larger community, we’re targeting a lot of different diverse audiences. We wanted something that was really strong, really classic and something that wasn’t necessarily easy to replicate or something that would look too similar to something that’s already out there easy to kind of put together,” Winter siad.

As a marketing director, Winter believes building a brand is incredibly important for a business. Working with Leech, Winter found building the brand and logos was a smooth process.

“That’s where Matt’s skill comes in, he’s able to take things that are pretty recognizable, like Turner Pavilion or the courthouse or things that are identifiable in Harrisonburg, but sort of manipulate that into a specific branding element that we can use and looks trustworthy. It looks professional, but it also encompasses what we’re trying to go for,” Winter said.

Online reviews of Leech’s work are equally positive and encouraging. One reviewer goes to the extent of calling Leech a “unicorn,” speaking to the uniqueness of his skills and talents.

Graphic designer Tim Skirven who co-founded Earth Surprise Murals with Leech, described being around him as nothing short of happiness.

“He’s a blast to be around and I’m glad we get to do business together,” Skirven said.

Both Leech and Skirven have experience in graphic design and its business side. Skirven can see the impact Leech’s business has had on the community.

“Graphic design can mean a lot of different things. When I was in college, graphic design meant one thing which was 2D, logos, etc. The depth and the definition has changed and it still means a lot to me. It has taken me for a very wild ride in my life and I think it can greatly impact that community, if used correctly,” Skirven said.

Leech’s business is service-based, meaning that Leech’s first priority when working with a customer is creating something that shows their business and brand to its core. Skirven said this aspect proves to be challenging in that there is less space to express artistic ideas especially when the customer is a business.

“Just because it has a big graphic on it, I don’t know if I would remember what their logo looks like, but I remember the sandwiches I ate and I remember the people that helped me. The community part of it is what I remember more than the graphics. Then something like a mural where it’s not that mural in particular but it’s just more community oriented, it’s for the people. You can sit across the street and look at it for hours if you want,” Skirven said.

The Man Behind the Mural

Graphic designer and co-founder of Earth Surprise Murals, Matt Leech paints a mural on the side of the Explore More Discovery Museum. Photo courtesy of Matt Leech (Clare Kirwan)

When his 9-year-old daughter, Frankie, pointed out that the tan exterior of the Explore More Discovery Museum didn’t match the fun interior of the museum that her and her family had been going to for years, Leech’s creative juices started flowing.

Leech had originally been asked by the museum to create a vinyl design that could be applied to the wall on a smaller scale, but still spruce the exterior up. After his conversation with Frankie, Leech decided the project needed to be just a little bit bigger.

In September 2022, Leech approached the museum’s executive director, Lisa Shull, with his mural vision. She immediately approached the musuem’s board which had originally been hesitant about putting paint on the walls. After board approval and a large starter donation from public art enthusiast Don Albright, as well as discounts and supplies provided by organizations such as Sherwin WilliamsRandy’s Hardware and others, the mural was set in motion.

He spent months sketching while the wall was power washed and prepared, Leech and Skirven began to paint the mural May 13, 2023.

Leech described the work as “just giant shapes, it’s a paint by numbers.” But these “giant shapes” all had meanings behind them correlating to an exhibit or space in the museum itself. Doors were turned into robots, gears and bananas were added through splashes of vibrant colors.

The exhibit director of the museum, Marcia Zook, appreciated the playfulness Leech brought to the project.

“He’s just fun, he rolls with things. He’s open to whimsy, and he’s open to creating art because it’s fun, creating art because it’s interesting to turn a corner then all of a sudden [you’re] surprised,” Zook said.

The element of surprise to town onlookers made the painting experience more fun for the muralists. Friends, children, other muralists and community members stopped to talk, bring drinks or food and encourage the pair as they painted.

“That part was so fun because Matt, at first, was like ‘I’m going to tell people please don’t stop and bother me’, but then Matt the whole time was just talking. He was so excited to talk to everybody. There was a lot of chatting, people were definitely excited and thought ‘What is this going to be?’” Zook said.

Leech described the feeling of finishing the mural as sheer relief. Between conceptualizing the mural, fundraising and implementing his art in a fully public setting, even getting over his fear of heights to work the lift, it was a taxing process. He is excited that it is not only completed, but that people are as excited about it as he is.

“There’s sort of a magic moment where you’re like, I think we’re close to done and you walk across the sidewalk,” Skirven said. “It means a lot to me not only to have a mural up in Harrisonburg, but to have something that is meaningful to that building and meaningful to the people who are interacting with it every day.”

Leech believes the push for public art is long overdue in Harrisonburg. The vibrant and welcoming community is not fully represented by the beige and brick walls, so to have a colorful piece that is also public is incredibly important to Leech and Skirven.

“We believe in access to fine arts and just beautiful spaces for everyone. It’s really meaningful to see some of the excitement that happens inside and to see these moments come to the outside,” Leech said. “It’s just great to have spaces, activated spaces visually. I feel like it’s really exciting for people, it lifts the spirits of everyone. I think it’s a beautiful thing.”


Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All HHS Media Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *