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In the slide show above, Kristie Eden O’Donnell (CFA’10) and Anya Smolnikova (CFA’09) talk about working on a giant mural at Boston’s Huntington Avenue firehouse.

It started with a simple Craigslist ad: firefighters at the Huntington Avenue firehouse were looking for an artist to paint a commemorative portrait of one of their fallen.

When she saw the posting, Kristie Eden O’Donnell raced over with her portfolio before students from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, located across the street from the station, could lift a paintbrush.

“I came in here before they had a chance.” O’Donnell (CFA’10) says proudly.

For the next three months, O’Donnell and former classmate Anya Smolnikova (CFA’09) painted six commemorative portraits and are now putting the finishing touches on a 30-foot by 8 1/2-foot mural that sweeps across a third floor wall in the firehouse recreation room.

And they did it for free.

“This is their gift to the firefighters,” says project manager Hugh O’Donnell, a College of Fine Arts professor of painting and Kristie’s father. “I think that’s pretty heroic and pretty generous of our artists to do that.”

Ten years ago, the professor started the Site-Specific Art course, which requires students to find potential clients who could benefit from having their product or concept advertised through a work of art. Artists with winning ideas come back a second semester to complete their projects. Previously, art developed in the class has been displayed at thePhotonics Center, on T signs at the BU West stop, in the FitRec Center,at Warren Towers, and in Sargent College.

O’Donnell took her father’s course, and has since placed her paintings with Red Bull and the MBTA, which was happy to post her paparazzi piece at the B Line’s East Campus stop.

Originally, the firehouse commission was for a portrait of Lt. Kevin M. Kelly, a firefighter who died in January 2009 during a work-related accident in Mission Hill. He had been the face of the fire station, starring in the Discovery Channel’s Firehouse USA, a 2005 series about firefighters.

But the more O’Donnell talked to the station’s men, the more she realized Kelly was not a unique case. Relatives of several firefighters had been killed in the line of duty working at the same firehouse.

Six portraits now grace the walls of the station’s lounge. The men’s faces are black-and-white, each framed in fire-engine red. The mural underwent a similar expansion, growing from one central figure to a sprawling painting that incorporates more than 40 firefighters and such iconic Boston sites as Fenway Park, the Citgo sign, Newbury Street, and the Statehouse dome.

“Working here is not like a studio atmosphere at all,” Smolnikova says. “You hear every accident, every fire.”

The two artists even rode along with firefighters as part of their research. They also collected old photographs and interviewed the men about their specific tasks, the differences between engines and ladders, and which tools do what. O’Donnell currently spends six days a week painting; Smolnikova wedges her studio time around a full-time job.

“I tell the students, get the first one built, but get it done beautifully,” Professor O’Donnell says. “And the people will come. And they’ll want more.” Students, he says, can use that first pro bono project as a calling card for future work. 

O’Donnell and Smolnikova have taken that lesson to heart. Since beginning the project, they have shot extensive photos of the mural and are working with Smolnikova’s brother to produce a documentary film. They also hope the MBTA will hang posters advertising their work at the nearby Symphony stop.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

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