Illustration Alumna Founds Nonprofit for Critically Ill Children

By Greta Chiocchetti

When Irene O’Callaghan first began painting murals, she was nearing the end of her M.F.A. program at Academy of Art University and looking to build up her portfolio. The School of Illustration (ILL) alumna, who was working at earning her second master’s degree (the first was in photography), circulated fliers around her neighborhood offering free personalized works.

Within two weeks, she was inundated with responses and donated five murals to families in the Bay Area. Once she built up a clientele and began charging for her work, she discovered something unexpected—she preferred doing it for free. 

“Sometimes, the people that had the least economic means were most appreciative of my work,” said O’Callaghan, a visual designer based in Berkeley. “You could tell that, for them, their mural meant so much because they couldn’t give their children the trampoline in the garden and the jumping castle and the big bed. And then other families that had a whole lot more, it also made them happy, but the mural was just one of the many other things that the parents could get for their children.” 

After graduation, O’Callaghan was asked by the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals, a volunteer organization that provides medical care to low-income workers, to donate a mural to its Oakland headquarters’ facade. Creating the whimsical, flower-filled mural showed her how gratifying it was to give back to the community and inspired her to find a way to keep doing it. 

Last December, O’Callaghan’s aspirations became a reality when she founded Mural Wish, a nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation that aims to deliver uplifting, colorful murals to the bedrooms of critically ill children—at no cost to their families. In its early stages, the company has partnered with local hospitals, including UCSF, to locate candidates and bring some light into their lives. 

Irene O’Callaghan working on a mural for one of the Mural Wish recipients. Photo courtesy of Irene O’Callaghan.

“We can’t really influence their disease directly, but we can definitely influence and change the emotions in their environment, which is the root,” said O’Callaghan. “Hospitals recognize this—there’s a psychological part that comes in. If the child loses their will to fight, they do worse in their development of beating the disease. So it’s extremely important for hospitals to offer programs to children that make them happy, psychologically and spiritually.”  

Though O’Callaghan wanted to provide her spirit-lifting murals to as many families as possible, she first had to figure out the logistics. Creating them was an all-day process that involved planning, designing, and painting a tailor-made mural that would include a different artist each time—who she wanted to make sure got compensated for their labor. 

“I started to realize that there was this huge culture of charity here in the U.S.—there are so many companies, organizations, and individuals that support nonprofits, and they want to give back to the community and the world,” said O’Callaghan. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we make this beautiful triangle, where I paint the mural for the family, they get a mural for free, the companies and organizations can support the nonprofit, and the artists can get paid for their work?’ That way everybody wins, I feel.”

O’Callaghan, who comes from a large family (she is one of 53 grandchildren on one side of her family), said working toward the greater good of the group comes naturally: “I always consider it a need of mine, to be in a bigger group, and to contribute to making it a better place for all of us. I’ve always been drawn to children, too, and I really admire the pure ways in which they see the world. I think we have a lot to learn from children who are very sick. They often have important things to say.” 

During her time at the Academy, O’Callaghan hustled to get the most out of the experience, pushing her creative development while also teaching in the photography department. Her entrepreneurial spirit was a significant asset, said Julie Downing, an illustrator and one of O’Callaghan’s ILL instructors.

“I think what worked for Irene is that she was just such a go-getter. I never felt like she sat back and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do this, I’m not sure.’ She had the confidence to just do what she had set her mind to. I admired that,” said Downing. “The other thing is, she didn’t just jump in and say, ‘I’m going to create this nonprofit where I donate murals to critically ill children,’ she started out smaller. She started out thinking, ‘Oh, I can make a little extra money doing murals.’ And she did one mural. And then she did another mural. She had the perseverance to start small and grow, and as people got to know her, that grew, her visibility grew. It’s okay to start a little bit smaller because I actually think perseverance is like 90% of having an art career—just being able to push through and have an idea that you want to go after something and keep trying.” 

During her time at the Academy, Downing shared that O’Callaghan’s style evolved.  

“There are certainly students that stand out, and Irene was definitely one of them,” said Downing, who taught O’Callaghan in two of her children’s book illustration classes. “It was just astonishing to see the progress that she made at the Academy. She went from a more generic style, which was still really well done, to something that was really individual. And that was really wonderful to see—this great combination of her photography and the digital style she was working with.”

While Mural Wish is still in its infancy, O’Callaghan said the first family would receive a mural on April 8, and from there, she hopes to grow and continue to brighten as many children’s lives as possible. 

“What’s really at the heart of it all is that all children feel worthy of something special—because a kid that gets so sick loses confidence,” said O’Callaghan. “Imagine being eight years old and never having gone to a day of school because you have had neuroblastoma since you were three. I want to help them regain their confidence and uplift their spirit—as well as give them a voice and empower them.” 

Mural Wish launched its first fundraiser on GoFundMe in December 2020, which is still running. Learn more at www.muralwish.org.

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