Chattanooga Muralists Make It Big

Larger than Life

Art is defined as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination to produce works to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power. And while much of art has its place in studios and galleries, other pieces are put on public display, stretching toward the sky on the sides of buildings and walls. Join us as local artists show their true colors and provide a glimpse into their world as makers of murals. 

 

By Christina Cannon / (Above) Photo by Emily Pérez Long

Photo by Emily Pérez Long

 

Justin Butts 

 

Q: Can you describe your journey as an artist?

A: I started out having to work full-time in kitchens and warehouses while spending late nights and off-days doing markets and shows. I moved to Chattanooga in 2012 from my hometown of Birmingham with high hopes and a small bit of art success. I ferociously pursued art and was able to hang my work in the restaurant I was working at, which began opening doors. There were times when I had to couch surf and dumpster dive to eat. I felt like the ultimate loser, but deep down, I knew my purpose. I had to stay diligent and keep producing work. It finally paid off in 2015, and I was able to make it as a full-time artist. 

 

Q: How would you describe your style? 

A: I would describe it as a mash-up of lowbrow and pop art with sprinkles of abstraction. I am influenced by so much, and I think it comes out in my work, for sure. 

 

Q: Which mural was the most challenging and why?

A: I would say “Humanaut” was the most challenging. It was my first large-scale piece, and it was on a structure inside a structure with lots of ridges, doors, and windows. Humanaut is also really important to me because it was my first paid mural. I was working a full-time job and had been striving to make a leap to full-time artist for over eight years. Those late nights smearing paint and dreaming of that seemed so much closer and obtainable with that job. It got me more work, and I was able to quit my day job and pursue my true purpose and passion. 

                   

Q: What do you love most about painting and the work you do?

A: I love the chance to experiment and to see a timeline of growth and progress in my work. I had my first chance to show and sell work when I was 18 in Birmingham. I just turned 34 in January, and I can look back and see my transformation and growth. 

 

Q: Do you have any memorable moments from any of your projects that you’re willing to share? What made them so special?

A: Almost a year after Hurricane Maria, a group flew me and other mural artists out to Puerto Rico to paint up the town of Humacao. It was a beautiful experience. I was to paint a massive mural and only had three days to do it. People would stop and hug me and tell me how grateful they were. They felt forgotten and abandoned by the world, and many of them were still without power. They would shower me with food and beer all day. I remember an older man telling me how much he loved the work, and his words, “Thank you for making our town beautiful again,” really got me. He and his friends would pull up chairs and watch me paint all day from across the road. It was humbling and empowering at the same time. 

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local muralist alex paul loza

(Above) Photo by Emily Pérez Long

 

Alex Paul Loza

 

Q: Can you describe your journey as an artist? 

A: My journey as an artist began at an early age in Perú where my maternal grandparents exposed me to art-making and creative problem-solving. During my senior year of high school, I decided to dedicate my life to art. Upon graduation, I began an academic art training with master portrait painter Harry Ahn and went on to be accepted into Chicago’s American Academy of Art. I received my first painting commissions while studying under Mr. Ahn, and I came across the opportunity to paint my first mural in the early 2000s while I was working as an after-school art teacher and paraprofessional at an elementary school in Chicago.

 

Dreaming Forward/Soñando

Dreaming Forward/Soñando (Photo Courtesy of Alex Paul Loza)

 

Q: Which one of your local murals has the most significance to you?

A: The “Dreaming Forward/Soñando” mural holds a special significance for many reasons. The mural highlights the diverse cultural influences within the Latino community – those being indigenous, African, European, and Asian. It also portrays a strong message of equality between genders and celebrates the individuality of each child and their views on how to reach their goals and dreams while sharing the same physical space. 

 

United We Stand by Alex Paul Loza

United We Stand (Photo Courtesy of Alex Paul Loza)

 

Q: How do you take a concept or a design and turn it into a piece that’s larger than life? 

A: I explore the mural site and interact with the community to draw inspiration for the design. I also do research on any life-changing events that occurred within the area. When possible, I hold brainstorming sessions or presentation meetings with community members and funding organizations to hear their input. My main goal is for people to identify and be familiarized with the design prior to the mural creation. Once the design has been finalized, I spend time in my studio enlarging the artwork on 5’x5’ sheets of fabric. The painting process usually takes four to six months. Once completed, I spend up to a week installing the sheets, retouching the artwork, and sealing it to protect the mural from fading, graffiti, and weather. 

 

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring artists? 

A: I encourage emerging artists to stay true to themselves, to always work on improving their skills, to never sell themselves short, to contribute to the development of their community, and most importantly, to stay humble. 

 

Q: Do you have any memorable moments from any of your projects that you’re willing to share? What made them so special?

A: I will never forget painting the “Veterans Memorial Mural” along the Collegedale Greenway. Every day, I witnessed many families stopping and kneeling by the mural to lift a prayer for a friend or a loved one currently serving. Some veterans approached me and shared their memories abroad, while others would spend a moment to cry and remember a lost hero.  

 

Q: How would you describe your style?

A: My style is contemporary figurative realism where the realistically depicted human figure is central to and a principal focus of my artwork.

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Photo by Emily Pérez Long

 

SEVEN (aka Eric Finley)

 

Q: Can you describe your journey as an artist?

A: I have been an artist for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I started out drawing my own comics in addition to Marvel characters and such. I went to art college in Atlanta, and that’s where I first started writing graffiti. Graffiti was my introduction to mural painting. I got my first wall on the side of a gas station quick-stop shop. I basically went in and told the manager I was an artist. I showed him pictures of my work and asked him for permission to paint a mural on the building to help cover all the graffiti tags that were constantly being painted by various writers at that location. I guess you could say the rest is history.

 

Q: How many murals do you have in Chattanooga?

A: I’ve hardly kept track of how many murals I’ve painted. Currently, I have over 30 on public display, scattered around the city.

 

Q: Which mural was the most challenging and why?

A: The mural I painted across from East Lake Middle School was challenging because of its height and the fact that I painted it on a damaged scaffold that was very sketchy and not so secure.

 

Q: Which mural has the most significance to you and why?

A: I consider them all to be significant, and they all played a role in my artistic development.

 

Q: How do you take a concept or a design and turn it into a piece that’s larger than life?

A: My creative process varies, depending on what the project requires. Most of the time, I just want to paint something that looks cool to me but on a larger scale. Usually, I will design the piece with it being a mural in mind.

 

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring artists? 

A: Try to be original. Be true to who you are and what you bring to your art form. Follow your passion, and don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t achieve.

 

Q: What do you love most about the work you do?

A: The fact that people get to see and enjoy my work at any time without it being restricted to a gallery or indoor private space.

 

Q: What do you find the most challenging?

A: Living life without art as a means of living is more challenging than anything I’m doing now.

 

Q: To what do you attribute your success?

A: Universal support through gratitude is a great formula for success, in my book.

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(Above) Photo Courtesy of Kevin Bate

 

Kevin Bate

 

Q: Can you describe your journey as an artist? 

A: I was a high school junior and needed to take an extracurricular class, so I randomly picked art. Easy A, right? But lo and behold, I got in, and I loved it. It consumed me. I actually stopped painting for several years and picked back up right after my son was born. My parents were visiting and asked if I had painted in a while. I went looking for my paints and brushes, and all I could find were big 1-inch brushes and two partial gallons of house paint. I had some plywood, so off I went! 

 

Mural by Kevin Bate

Photo by Allie Schrenke

 

Q: Which of your local murals has the most significance to you?

A: “The Fallen Five,” without a doubt. The story of those men hit me hard. The day after the attack, I knew I was going to have to memorialize those men.

Q: What is your creative process? 

A: I always keep a pad of paper nearby to sketch on and jot ideas down. When a concept really grabs me, I start looking for a photo that I think the idea will pair well with. I’ve got digital folders filled with thousands of photos tagged with descriptors to help me find what I’m looking for, and usually, through trial and error, I can combine the two and end up with a workable sketch.

 

Highland Park by Kevin Bate

Photo Courtesy of Kevin Bate

 

Q: What advice do you have for someone who is embarking on creating
their first mural?

A: When people walk up when I’m painting and ask how they get into murals, I usually tell them two things. First, if you really want to get your work out there and have it seen, you’re probably going to have to bankroll your first mural out-of-pocket. Second, if you’re going to work on a mural without getting paid, make sure it’s benefiting you. Creativity and the things that you make are valuable. Never forget that. To the person about to paint their first mural, if you want your mural to look good and last, make sure you’re putting it on the best possible foundation. To the person who is not thinking about painting their first mural, I ask, why not?

 

Q: What do you find the most challenging?

A: Ninety-five percent of what I paint are faces, and faces can get tricky. If an eye is just a little bit off, the viewer can tell that something’s wrong. Your brain knows when the proportions of a face are off. I spend a lot of time at my desk working on my sketches to make sure they’re as good as they can be. Once I’ve started painting, all of the hard work is done. The actual painting part of the mural is pure fun for me. It’s almost meditative. I listen to music or podcasts and enjoy every second of it.

 

Q: To what do you attribute your success?

A: First, just a willingness to keep at it, but more importantly, parents who supported my goals and thought that being an artist was as good a career as any other. A wife who was okay with me going out at night to paint my first murals and who helps me manage my business, and, certainly, the community that seems to like my work and gets excited about new pieces when they go up.

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