Interview with Muralist Tonia Michno Gebhart

If you have ever been to a Trader Joe’s store, you most likely have seen some of the hand lettering and mural work of Tonia Michno Gebhart. Gebhart lives in Lillington, NC and has painted over 1500 murals, including doing work for 22 Trader Joe’s stores. She has a fresh take on the creative design process and doing mural work. Get to know more about her as she shares her about her inspiration, working process, and challenges in this interview.


 How did you get started doing murals?
I love a challenge and I always wanted to do large scale work so I took on a wall at a friend’s house and then a local restaurant. I was hooked from then on and I wanted more! My style ranges from more realistic to impressionistic, but I also do abstract work.


To date you have done many murals for Trader Joe’s. How did you start doing this work with them, and how has it changed since you started?
I’ve painted murals in 22 Trader Joe’s and each store has 7 to 9 large murals inside. I was painting a mural at a Home and Garden Show in Raleigh, when someone from Trader Joe’s found me. I love their style and love tight deadlines. When I started, I could paint the murals in a store in as quickly as 10 days. Today I’m even faster, which is one of the biggest things that has changed. I believe that the more you paint, the better you get. Doing this work has helped me improve my skill along the way. Since I started doing mural work, I have done over 1500 murals, both commercial and residential.


What is a good early story about you doing mural work?
In 2001 I took vacation from my customer service job in order to paint a mural for a restaurant. I have always painted more comfortably with my shoes off, so I pushed some tables together, covered them with a drop cloth, and took off my shoes and started painting. People who came to eat lunch saw me doing the work in my bare feet. A few days later I was on the front page as “Local Artist Paints Barefoot”. It took off from there. Three months later, I quit my customer service job to “paint”. I now am known as the “The Barefoot Artist.”


What is your background and training?
I have always been an artist. I grew up watching Bob Ross and making art out of anything I could find. For example, as a child I sculpted George Washington out of the orange clay that was in our yard and painted on anything that was lying around. In middle school, I would take metal pieces and nails and would make sculptures. I started taking a few painting lessons while I was in high school. I also attended Sandhills Community College for Fine Arts.

I have worked at making work every day and continued to follow my passion for art. I get excited when I create; it’s a natural high like no other. I still paint/sculpt or build something every day.


What is the process for developing the imagery for murals? What inspires you?
I am inspired by the atmosphere of where the murals will be painted, and meeting with clients inspire me the most. To see the excitement in a clients eyes when I paint for them is exciting, since my work will make them happy for years to come.


What is the process that goes into doing murals and hand lettering?
I just do it! I usually brain storm and scribble some rough sketches down and then I roll with it.


What are some of the greatest challenges you have had?
I love a challenge! One challenge I had to overcome was my fear of heights and working from a lift/scaffold. I also have worked to get used to traveling with my tools (which are mostly paintbrushes.)

I challenging project was to sculpt a 13 foot tree that had to fit into a double door at a school. I had to design the piece to be in pieces, like a puzzle.


What is a typical workday like for you when working on mural work?
I really enjoy my workday – it is fun! I have to load up my truck each day with the proper ladders, scaffolding, paint, and tools. This preparation takes about an hour. I usually have the paints mixed the day before I work on the mural. I really dislike waiting on paint to be mixed on a day that I’m “in the zone” working.

Once on site, I will setup and start painting. I’ll paint as long as I desire for the day, which could be as much as 12 hours. At the end of the day I clean up and load up. My work day is usually 10-16 hours, depending on how long I paint.


Murals can be exposed to weather, vandalism, etc. How do you deal with the intrinsic fragility of your work?
I use exterior paint with UV protection in it. I have not experienced any vandalism yet.


Where does your inspiration come from?
Blank walls and trust from my clients!


What are some of your favorite tools for the creative process?
I have over 100 paint brushes that I choose from. I also have a hot knife for foam sculpting. My tools are very simple!


What do you do when you hit a creative roadblock?
When I feel stuck, I step away from painting for a bit and change mediums like focusing on photography or sculpting.


How important is collaborating with others?
Collaboration is very important. When I’m working with a group of designers I want to make sure I “see” what’s inside their head. This way everyone is happy in the end. I work very well with others (artists, designers, construction crew and clients.)


What is the most frustrating aspect of design?
It can be frustrating when I hit those roadblocks. When the stress of a deadline is added to a roadblock it gets even more frustrating. But this doesn’t happen that often.


Are there any new mural works that are in progress now?
I’m currently in the planning phases for a few city murals for the sides of some buildings. I can’t mention the towns yet because we are still in the contract writing stage.

I also have about six Trader Joe’s and four restaurants on my work list for 2014. I cannot discus s the exact locations at this time, but I can say that I will be painting some walls in South Carolina, Florida, and Texas in 2014.


What are some of your future plans?
I would love to have a large building with a team of artists working with me painting murals and carving 3d sculptures. I would also love to have a central location to ship work out nationwide. Big dreams!


What advice would you give to an artist or designer who is just starting their career?
Never give up, live your dreams, do what you love every day!

You can read more about her Tonia Michno Gebhart’s work and see images at

All Images © Copyright 2013 Tonia Michno Genhart, All Rights Reserved.


Editor’s Note:

We are excited to announce the next edition of our Fresh Cuts Film Series. We will be hosting a viewing of the movie Sign Painters on February 27 at the Rialto Theater. More details to come in the coming weeks. This will be a great event, so be sure to mark your calendars and join us to celebrate the craft of sign painting. Read more.


About the Author

Kristen Baumlier is an artist and designer and is currently developing a interactive project called Food Font. Baumlier’s work was a finalist in the Where Do You Give? design contest, and a prototype of her interactive game design has been exhibiting across the U.S. since 2012. Baumlier taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art for over 12 years in the areas of interactive design and integrated media, and recently moved to the Triangle area.




By Kristen Baumlier
Published January 5, 2014