Even as an undergraduate, Maren Conrad (Art, ’02) struggled to imagine a future as a professional artist.

The idea of the “starving artist” is real, especially in an industry where women earn 68 percent of the art degrees but their work sells for 30 percent less than their male counterparts. Even more shocking, she said, less
than 1 percent of street muralists are women.

But Conrad kept at it, feeding her passion and eventually securing her first commissioned large-scale piece. Today, she’s not just surviving but thriving as a muralist, beautifying multi-story buildings across Sacramento and the Bay Area with thousands of gallons of paint, and contracting with clients ranging from Twitter and Shake Shack to Kaiser Permanente.

She sees her murals, many of which have an interactive element, as gifts to their communities. Many of the areas Conrad has reclaimed were once alleyways, riddled with trash. Today, they are a destination.

“It’s taking something sad and depressing and making it a place where brides and a 3-year-old with a balloon and people in tuxedos go for fun and photos,” she said. “When you put an interactive mural in a community, everyone takes pictures of themselves, so the identity of the community comes out. The art isn’t done until someone stands in it.”

As passers-by engage with her art—whether posing with an array of feathers behind them at her Sac Proud Peacocks or blowing a poof of dandelion seeds at her Wishing Wall—they further the joy the art creates, she said.

In addition to interactive murals, Conrad is drawn to political and humanitarian pieces. Many of her works are icons of cultural appreciation that provoke thought and conversation.

Conrad’s Koi Fish uplifts the history of Chinese laborers who built many of the nation’s railroads and was inspired as a protest against President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration sentiments. Her mural of Mr. T, which includes a nautical chain necklace that people can sit on and hang from, celebrates the power of individual protest and fights discrimination against African Americans. And her I Vote series spotlights incredible everyday women who transformed the world through the 19th Amendment.

Maren Conrad interacts with her painted mural of daffodils by blowing in the direction of it so it seems she's blowing the daffodil.
Maren Conrad engages with her mural Wishing Wall in Sacramento. Like many of her works, it is designed to be interactive.

Hoping to pay forward her opportunities, Conrad is now co-creating a gallery in Sacramento to honor a fellow alumna, Jacquelyn Anderson (Communication Design, ’81), who died of cancer this spring. Artists will apply to hold a solo show at the venue and receive funding to embark on a project they otherwise may not have the freedom to experiment with.

“Other people’s ideas excite me,” she said. “When people are given the means to take a huge risk, where you can find yourself—even if you never make that work again—it is one of the coolest things you can do.”