Andrea Kostyal stood atop an orange plastic bucket, pushing a paint roller in even strokes up the alley wall behind 402 N. Main St. in downtown Hattiesburg, Miss., in November 2020. As she continued to paint over the next two months, the concrete wall transformed into a colorful mural of whites and blues that illustrated several masked figures walking down the main street of an abstract cityscape. The bucket is also painted in the mural itself, supporting up a small girl with braids and a yellow shirt, a girl whom Kostyal named Hope.

Kostyal titled the mural “New Norm 2020” after finishing the project in December 2020, forever making that corner of Hattiesburg a monument to the city’s social quarantine. Moreover, “New Norm 2020” signals a shift in how Hattiesburg values public art in the wake of the pandemic. During Hattiesburg’s quarantine period, Mayor Toby Barker contacted Kostyal after seeing her art on social media and commissioned the artist to memorialize the city’s collective quarantine experience through a mural.

“I just love the layers that she puts into something visual,” Barker told the Crirec. “I remember feeling very much affected by that mural and all that it represented and all that we have lived through—and all of the other people involved, too. We were all very affected by this painting the morning that we opened it.”

Barker described the mural as a testament to Kostyal’s artistic ability. “New Norm 2020” was Kostyal’s first mural. While a mural itself is already a difficult artistic feat, Barker suggested that this mural’s canvas made the artwork an especially impressive endeavor.

“There were several problems with that wall,” Barker said. “It is close to a powerline. There were things in the ground (such as metal poles near the wall) that instead of asking us to move, she just worked them into the design. It takes an artist to see how those things can be incorporated.”

A mural of people walking through a downtown street while all wearing medical face masks.
“New Norm 2020” captures Downtown Hattiesburg through the perspective of one of the city’s most notable visual artists. In this mural, Kostyal depicts Hattiesburg’s historic Saenger theater in her characteristically abstract style. Outside of the Saenger, masked figures walk together toward the mural’s viewer, commemorating the end of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Photo by Gaven Wallace

Now, “New Norm 2020” is one of the 55 artworks along Hattiesburg’s Public Art Trail, a citywide project that began in March 2020 and is still expanding to include more artwork today. This trail, consisting of murals and utility boxes that local artists have painted, is one of the Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art’s efforts to beautify the city by painting benign spaces that are often overlooked.

Besides “New Norm 2020,” Kostyal also painted several utility boxes during the pandemic that are also a part of the public art trail. Kostyal claims that she designed two of these utility boxes—“Education: Hope for the Future” and “Midtown Fun”—in response to open calls for public art from Visit Hattiesburg and the Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art.

‘These Artworks Echo My Hope’

Kostyal grew up in Ivándárda, a town in Hungary of around 300 people. Kostyal started taking art lessons at the age of 14 and moved to study textiles at Pécs Secondary School in Pécs, Hungary, a city that Kostyal describes as “beautiful and culturally rich.” While Kostyal primarily works with oil and acrylic today, her time in Pécs was very transformative for the subject matter and style of her art.

“I just fell in love with the city,” Kostyal told the Crirec. “The reflection of life on the street, the light reflecting off the rain, the beautiful architecture and the beautiful buildings—I just fell in love with it, and I’ve never stopped.”

Her fascination with the city shows very clearly in her paintings, which showcase a very distinct style of abstract cityscapes.

“I do very complex cityscapes, kind of representational and abstract,” Kostyal said. “I start with a very abstract, very loose background on the painting. Then, I use my photo-transfer method in my paintings and finish with acrylic and oil paints.”

An interior view of art handing on a wall
Kostyal refers to her style of cityscape as “representational abstract,” which combines abstract painting techniques with a method of image manipulation known as photo transfer. After painting an abstract background, Kostyal projects photographs onto canvas to more directly represent her subject city. Kostyal’s paintings often feature playful bubbles and dripping colors, as shown in the above selection from her studio. Photo by Gaven Wallace

The public artwork that Kostyal created during the pandemic, however, differs from her typical style. Kostyal’s utility boxes—her paintings titled “Midtown Fun,” “Capturing Progress,” and “Education: Hope for the Future”—are distinct from the rest of her art in how they all feature people as their subjects instead of cityscapes.

Part of the reason for this change has to do with COVID itself. “During COVID, I began to put figures with masks in my paintings,” Kostyal said, something that she claimed made the paintings feel “more personal.”

But the figures in Kostyal’s public art are also representative of the social change that she hopes this art can bring about. In “Capturing Progress” and “Education,” both subjects are women.

“I always want to try to have a woman as my subject, because I feel like we do need to do some more work towards equality for women,” Kostyal said.

Her representation of women here is demonstrative of how Kostyal views public art as a tool for social change.

“For my public art, I really focus on the future,” she said. “These artworks echo my hope for how we grow towards equality and diversity. I try to create art with positive energy towards unity.”

Nowhere is this idea of unity more prevalent in Kostyal’s art than in her mural “New Norm 2020,” the artist explained.

“Its message is essentially that we are all in this together,” she said. “In this painting, there are people from different religions and different ethnicities who walk through Hattiesburg how I imagined we would walk when we walked out of the pandemic together.”

An outside utility box painted brightly with a student holding a book on one site and "Hope for the Future" on the other
Kostyal’s painting “Education: Hope For the Future” features a figure that recurs through her public art: a young girl whom Kostyal named hope. Hope-both as a concept and a character-represents the optimistic emotional tenor that Kostyal hopes to bring to the public through her art. Photo by Gaven Wallace

But Kostyal’s longing for change is not limited to her public art. Rather, that wish is a greater theme of her art as a whole. Namely, she sees her cityscapes as a way to learn about and to teach people about different cultures, especially those cultures and architectures that are endangered.

“I want to explore different architectures and understand different cultures,” she said. “I’ve painted beautiful Ukrainian Orthodox churches because I wanted people to be aware of how gorgeous these architectures are that were being destroyed.”

As a practical effort to contribute to the change she wants to see, Kostyal donated 20% of her earnings for these pieces to a personal friend who rebuilds sculptures in Kyiv.

From Hungary to Hattiesburg

In 2008, Kostyal moved to Hattiesburg with her husband, Dr. Alen Hajnal, after Hajnal accepted a position in the University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Psychology. Since coming to the United States, Kostyal has made many connections that have helped her establish herself as a prominent artist in Mississippi.

One of the first organizations Kostyal joined was the South Mississippi Art Association, an organization that emphasizes the importance of the educational and community-centered applications of art in South Mississippi.

“(After joining SMAA) I started to have more connections that allowed me to be involved with shows around Dauphin Island, New Orleans, other smaller festivals, and the Art Walk in Hattiesburg,” Kostyal said.

Joining SMAA began a chain reaction of Kostyal networking with other artists, which led to her joining a variety of different artist collectives.

“From the Southern Mississippi Art Association, I met someone who recommended me to join the Mississippi Art Colony, and in 2013, someone from the Art Colony invited me to join the Women’s Art Collective,” Kostyal said.

To Kostyal, this sort of networking is important for all artists, but especially so for those who are a part of marginalized groups.

“I think it’s important for us, especially women, but it also relies on other groups,” she said. “It’s how we created the artists across borders group. We need to help in raising each other up.”

An outside utility box painted brightly with Two students with lunch on one side and "Eat Live Love" written on the side
Located in Hattiesburg’s growing Midtown district, Kostyal painted “Midtown Fun” as an answer to an open call for murals for the Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art. This non-profit’s efforts and the artists it funds are integral for achieving Mayor Toby Barker’s vision of making Hattiesburg a “city of 100 murals.” Photo by Gaven Wallace

Artist collectives like these have aided Kostyal both in finding shows to display her work and in presenting her with opportunities to work in studio spaces. For two months in 2005, Kostyal was an artist in residence for a studio the Hattiesburg Cultural Center sponsored. Her presence there was enough to draw the attention of the owners of the nearby Oddfellows Art and Antiques Gallery.

“I did well there,” Kostyal said. “Then, Mr. and Mrs. Price (the owners of Oddfellows) next door to us offered me a studio space next to the gallery.”

Kostyal operated out of this studio for two years. After her time there, Kostyal said she collaborated with the Hattiesburg Downtown Association to find locations across the downtown area where she would be able to display her art.

“The Hattiesburg Downtown Association always helped me find empty buildings to show my art, even if it was just a pop-up show,” Kostyal said. “I was very happy to have those spaces to show my art and be involved in the community.”

Now, Kostyal operates out of Singing River Art Studio, a studio she operates along with fellow WAC members Traci Stover and Betty Press. Chad Edmondson, a Hattiesburg developer who visited the USM art gallery when Kostyal was working there in 2017, offered Kostyal the studio in 2022. 

Edmonson visited the gallery as part of his effort to renovate the North Main Neighborhood and was there to ask questions about studio lighting for a building he was renovating. Singing River—located on the intersection of West 4th and Main Street—is one of several artisan-run businesses that Edmonson has developed in the North Main neighborhood. While Edmondson was visiting the gallery to ask for advice, he unknowingly found a tenant.

“He was mentioning that he was going to have this space, and I have my home studio, so I wasn’t quite sure if I would want to do it by myself. That’s a lot of commitment,” Kostyal said.

So, she reached out to some of the artists she had met from being so active in the Mississippi art community. Carolyn Norton and Betty Press were interested, so the three of them worked with Edmondson to open the studio, naming it for Press’ Singing River Press, a book-binding studio that creates artistic covers for books. Tracy Stover joined the studio later.

Now, Kostyal describes Singing River as a space where the WAC can come together to be involved with their neighborhood.

“I thought it would be a great idea to have this space for workshops, for meeting clients, for meeting with the Women’s Art Collective, and—in short—be involved in the community,” Kostyal said.

Reach out to the Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art to potentially contribute to public art in Hattiesburg as a donor or an artist by visiting hburgart.com.

Know a Mississippian you believe deserves some public recognition? Nominate them for a potential Person of the Day article at mfp.ms/pod.

Contributing Reporter Gaven Wallace is a writer based out of Hattiesburg, Miss., where he attends the University of Southern Mississippi in pursuit of a Masters of the Arts in creative writing. During his undergraduate career, he earned the O’Hara-Mackaman Endowment for fiction writing. His work can be found in journals such as Sky Island Journal and West Trade Review. He especially enjoys reading contemporary fiction and poetry with an eye for the postmodern, such as the works of Jennifer Eagan and David Mitchell.