When Anna (Mackey) Dugan passes through your community, things will suddenly appear much brighter. You might find her work elevating the status of the most mundane of surfaces, from rain barrels and picnic tables to concrete jersey barriers. This young artist fears no surface; anything can be the next canvas for her to claim and conquer with her art.

Muralist and public artist Dugan is a native of Methuen and 2008 Methuen High grad. She recalls being called out by her high school teachers for doodling in class, yet this was her way of concentrating on what was being taught, and she got good grades.

“But I never considered art as a career for me,” she says, “until I took a single art class in college while pursuing a degree in business. “I instantly fell in love and transferred to the graphic design program at UMass Lowell.”

After graduation, Dugan worked at several office jobs in Boston but none at which she used her graphic design skills.

The stars aligned for Dugan a few years ago when she took on a side gig at Gulu-Gulu Café in Salem, Mass., where she and her husband live.

“My philosophy was to use whatever was available to me to make art,” says Dugan. “I proposed a project to the owner: for 100 days I would create art every day on their chalkboard walls, listing menu items, musical guests and events and bringing them to life with my own art. It was a way to challenge myself by creating daily.”

A fun and productive 100 days later, her next thought was to try something more permanent than chalk. Dugan threw her hat in the ring and was selected as one of the artists to create the city’s annual Arts Festival mural, which remains in a public outdoor space for a year.

“This was higher stakes than drawing with chalk,” she says. “Still, it wasn’t permanent, so I thought I could handle it.”

Totally hooked after that experience, Dugan had found her calling: “I reached out to anyone and everyone, whenever I saw a blank wall, and asked if they wanted a mural.”

And in 2020, she plunged full-time into mural art. Since then, she has seen a non-stop flow of opportunities and clients, including the painting of 24 concrete Jersey barriers in downtown Salem that surrounded outdoor dining spaces. This project led to other communities reaching out, and ultimately Dugan, often along with other artists, transformed just under 100 drab concrete slabs into vibrant works of art.

“I learned that art can intersect with function and really affect the mood and atmosphere of an area. It also attracts business,” she says.

Dugan’s murals usually begin with a rough sketch on paper. Not a big fan of computers, she does sometimes scan her layout and use the Procreate program on her iPad to experiment with color choices.

“I am very analog, but this process allows me to bridge the gap between old-school and technology, since I can still use a pencil on the iPad,” she says.

Drawing everything to scale (converting feet to inches), Dugan then has a pretty accurate layout, but she still allows leeway for spontaneity, since things might change as she is painting the actual piece. Dugan adds that although her process is very organic and mostly painted free-hand, she sometimes projects the layout onto the site to then outline basic shapes.

And while the computer is a handy tool, for Dugan there is nothing like getting down and dirty actually painting a large-scale project.

“I get my entire body into it,” she laughs. “Unlike sitting and clicking with a mouse, I move around, sweeping my whole arm across the surface, physically connecting with my art.”

But creating these giant murals outdoors is not all fun and games, assures the artist: “I do feel blessed to be doing this, but it is labor-intensive. I am out in the elements, the sun is beating down … it’s sometimes very challenging.”

Recently, Dugan was approached by Methuen High to paint a mural. Brainstorming with a group of students to bring their vision to life along a school corridor, Dugan says she designed a piece that “encapsulated their idea of what Unity means to them.”

The project was partially funded by Elevated Thought, a non-profit art and social justice program in Lawrence.

“As the kid who, in high school, never considered art seriously, it was so surreal to go back there as a full-time artist,” says Dugan. “But had I, at that age, seen this mural, I may have been inspired to find my calling sooner.”

The mural is vibrant and bold.

“Bright colors overlap and work beautifully together,” says the artist. “Over the colors are painted a series of faces, each with different features and hairstyles. The colors overlap behind the faces. Each individual is a very unique combination of colors that represent the different experiences which make us who we are. Yet when you step back, we all collectively create this beautiful community.”

While working on the mural, Dugan also had a chance to say thank you to her former English teacher, Bud Jennings.

“I had always wanted to reach out to him,” she says. “He used to use an overhead projector in class to illustrate things like plot points and characters, and his way of teaching reflected back at me the way that I thought. He was the first adult who spoke my language, and that was a really formative and validating part of my high school experience. When I thanked him, he said he was going to go back to the head of the English department and ask to get his overhead projector back,” she laughs.

Dugan adds that creating this mural was a wonderful experience for all involved.

“The idea behind the mural was Unity,” she says. “And here I was, a former student, working with current students to create something for future students to enjoy. It was very poetic.”

Annadidathing is Dugan’s business name (it’s on Instagram and Facebook), and it came about organically.

“It started as a joke,” she explains. “When I was working office jobs that were kind of boring, I would always be creating something on the side. It was a random assortment of projects, like painting on different surfaces; and I couldn’t always concisely describe what it was that I did on the side. People would say that Anna was always doing something. Annadidathing became a name that I used on Instagram, and it carried through onto my public art. I love it. Because I will paint on anything … and I will always be doing a thing.”

Patricia Bruno is a Methuen native, currently living in Haverhill. A writer and photographer, she is also the owner of The Winged Rabbit gift shop in downtown Haverhill.