A photo of a woman standing in front o a mural.
Sirena Pearl painted a mural atop the Bowe Street Parking Deck using both heat-absorbing and solar-reflective materials to mimic the effects of an urban heat island versus a sustainable city. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Mural by VCUarts student reveals the invisible danger of heat island effect

With a VCU parking deck as her canvas, Sirena Pearl mixes art and science, creativity and technology, in a project supported by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

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Entering Richmond during the height of August heat often feels like jumping from the flame directly into the inferno. Why in blazes is the city so hot?

Richmond, like most cities, is an urban heat island, meaning it is significantly warmer than its surrounding suburban and rural areas. The phenomenon occurs when natural land cover such as trees is replaced with surfaces that absorb and retain heat, such as concrete. You can’t see this invisible effect, yet it increases energy costs, pollution and heat-related illnesses.

But what if you could see it?

A Virginia Commonwealth University undergrad has both figuratively and literally made the effect visible to the naked eye with a large outdoor mural utilizing special materials.

Sirena Pearl, a sophomore who is majoring in painting and printmaking in the School of the Arts, first learned about the heat island effect in an environmental science course. Wanting to know more, she read about a University of Richmond and Science Museum of Virginia research project that captured thermal infrared images of murals around Richmond to study their heat absorption.

What would happen, Pearl wondered, if she painted a mural using heat-absorbing or solar-reflective materials? She set out to depict a sustainable city with cooler temperatures and an urban heat island with warm temperatures.

The finished product — at the top of VCU’s Bowe Street Parking Deck — demonstrates the factors that increase and decrease the heat island effect. Her mural features two opposing figures representing how the community can contribute either to the solution or the problem.

A photo of a building with a mural painted on the side.
Sirena Pearl’s thermal painting communicates the urban heat island effect with two worlds personified as figures representing the complex and chaotic ecological systems of humans and the environment. The first figure personifies an urban heat island, sweating and in pain from absorbed heat. The second figure personifies the ideal sustainable city, with cooled temperature and a relaxed posture. (Courtesy photo)

“The surrounding environment of the red figure displays concrete infrastructure, asphalted roads and empty vegetation — an embodiment of an urban heat island,” Pearl said. “The blue figure resembles a city modeled on sustainable foundations — the opposite of an urban heat island — with extensive forest coverage, wildlife and buildings with garden roofs surrounding the personification. The blue figure’s temperature is cooled, and their posture is mostly at rest.”

In addition to visualizing the issue, the mural proves that strategies already exist to reduce the heat island effect.

Pearl used a solar reflective coating that helps to cool the surface temperature. A thermal infrared camera captures the temperature differences, displaying the warmer temperatures of the mural as a bright yellow and the cooler areas as a dark purple.

“Generally, colors that are shaded darker absorb more heat than lighter colors,” Pearl explained. “Colors similar to shades like white reflect the sun and are less heated. … You can view these temperature contrasts because I painted the red/urban heat island figure with much darker shades, and similar to urban heat islands, the material used on infrastructure in cities makes a prevalent difference in temperature.”

Additionally, she experimented with solar-reflective sealant on the blue figure embodying the sustainable city.

“The ‘cool coat’ sealant I used has a formula that contains ceramic spheres that help the reflection of the heat from the sun,” Pearl said. “I am currently in the process of measuring how effective this sealant is in cooling the surface of the blue figure.”

VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program helped fund the mural.

“In terms of research we're putting together, Sirena was really fascinated by how artwork can look differently depending on how it's viewed,” said Roberto Jamora, an assistant professor in the Art Foundation program at VCUarts who mentored Pearl on the mural project. “What [she] investigated in the work is the use of materials that we probably pass by every day but don't realize the effect of these construction and building materials on our everyday lives.”

A woman painting the side of a building
Sirena Pearl painting her heat map mural at the top of the Bowe Street Parking Deck in July 2023. (Courtesy photo)

With Jamora’s help, Pearl learned skills such as applying for a research grant and writing and presenting a proposal.

Working on such a large scale — the mural is 25 by 91 feet — also presented a significant learning curve for Pearl, who had to use equipment such as scaffolding, rollers and spray paints.

“This project was my first large-scale exterior mural, and I was lucky to meet, receive advice and talk to local Richmond muralists and street artists,” Pearl said. “I met many muralists and street artists from the local art store Supply RVA, run by Ian Hess. So much planning, manual labor, budgeting and patience go into mural making. … It was also such a different experience to have the opportunity to shift the perspective of my work from a gallery/personal setting to one experienced by a community.”

Fittingly, climate change and the heat island effect impacted Pearl’s ability to complete the project before the end of the summer. She quickly learned the importance of weather conditions when creating an exterior mural, and she had to adjust her schedule to start painting before sunrise.

“She was coming out here at 4 in the morning to paint because it just got so hot” during the day, Jamora said. “There's no cover out here on the parking deck balcony.”

Photos of the mural with colors showing how much heat is on them.
Infrared thermal images show the differences in mural temperatures before and after Pearl applied a cooling coat. (Courtesy photo)

While Pearl completed the mural itself this summer, her research via the thermal infrared camera will continue through October. Pearl is using the camera to compile qualitative data to see how the cool-coat sealant and dark colors versus light colors changed the amount of heat reflected throughout the day. She will continue to take pictures at various points of the day. The differences are most apparent, she said, by midafternoon once the sunlight has directly hit the wall for a few hours. The thermal images can be viewed online at sirenapearl.com/urban-heat-island-mural/.

“This UROP fellowship project will really set the bar for what an arts and science cross-disciplinary project can be like,” Jamora said.

While Pearl was excited to incorporate her art into a research project, she also believes that visual communication is a powerful way to spread messages about risk. And, she said, it’s essential to find multiple channels to reach as diverse an audience as possible.

“With the growing concern and the increasing environmental risks in the next few decades, artists and creative-minded people have a vital skill to find creative solutions to communicate scientific data in an accessible format for the general public,” Pearl said. “I consider creativity a crucial asset that expands public knowledge of environmental risks, as quantitative data is not always the easiest to visualize for different learners and populations.”