If Walls Could Talk

 (above) Photo Courtesy of Public Art Chattanooga ©1504 Pictures


By Andrew Shaughnessy

Across the country, major cities like New York, Miami, and Philadelphia have significant public art scenes and prolific muralists using their work to transform public spaces and build bridges between communities. Atlanta’s “Living Walls” project links public art and urban development, utilizing murals as social and economic engines to change perspectives and build communities. 

Now, it’s Chattanooga’s turn.

From the giant mural on M.L. King Boulevard to the McCallie Walls drive-through gallery, the number of murals in Chattanooga has grown dramatically in recent years. And this is no traditional graffiti, so often read as a sign of urban decay and crumbling neighborhoods. Quite to the contrary, Chattanooga’s murals are functioning as catalysts of change. These murals are beautifying the city, encouraging important conversations, and connecting communities.

Spirit of Main Street
By Shaun LaRose

(above) Photo Courtesy of Public Art Chattanooga


 


Beginnings: Main Street Experiments

When Chattanooga Christian School art teacher and local muralist Shaun LaRose moved to Chattanooga in 2004, the city was still in the process of reinventing itself and renewing the downtown area.

“Between Lookout Mountain and the river, Chattanooga was somewhat desolate,” says LaRose. “Part of it had a post-apocalyptic flare with boarded up windows and crumbling buildings from a bygone era.”

At that point, there were no sizeable murals to be found in the city. Businesses largely viewed murals with skepticism—sign pollution that would brand their area for the worse rather than provide economic stimulus. But when local coffeehouse owner Ian Goodman allowed LaRose to paint his first Chattanooga mural in Greyfriar’s, it broke the ice, and as the city developed, murals came right alongside.

LaRose received his first mural grant through Allied Arts (the pre-cursor to ArtsBuild), and the Lyndhurst Foundation in 2007, selecting a building on the still-developing West Main Street as his target. Mimicking the tactics of famed muralist Meg Saligman, who years later would herself play a significant role in Chattanooga’s public art story, he interviewed local businesses and residents, forging relationships with the community. He also hired local storyteller Jim Pfitzer and designer Andrew Stewart to help create a collaborative design that would express the history of Main Street in its golden era. The ultimate result was the remarkable mural entitled “The Spirit of Main Street.”

“That was my first attempt working on a mural for the purpose of urban renewal and creating social capital,” says LaRose. “We can’t quantify to what degree it was a success, but I hope in some small measure it was an asset to the larger endeavor.”

In June 2011, the Discoteca Demolition Project became another major turning point for the city’s muralism scene. The brainchild of LaRose and local designer D.J. Trischler, a vacated Discoteca bar on East Main, scheduled for demolition, was turned into a rotating canvas of street art for several months, promoting murals as an art form and giving local artists a platform for their work.

“What ensued was a whirlwind of competing street artists and eventually all out chaos,” LaRose admits. “However, it was a brilliant social experiment and as a result a number of artists were launched into the spotlight in Chattanooga.”

In particular, local artist Kevin Bate’s portrait of Samuel L. Jackson, his very first mural, garnered a great deal of attention and led to a number of commissions around the city.

“I think [the Discoteca Project] went a long way towards the city’s acceptance of street art and muralism as something other than graffiti,” says Bate. “But I also see it as a point when a lot of artists realized that they could paint large-scale, that there was no magic to it.”

Also present was a man named Eric Finley, a muralist who would ultimately become an instrumental figure in rebranding street art in Chattanooga.


 


“It was a brilliant social experiment and as a result a number of artists were launched into the spotlight in Chattanooga.”


– Shaun LaRose

Flying Over the Rails
By Seven

 


Seven

Beautifying the City: Eric Finley’s Street Art Dream

Chattanooga mural artist Eric Finley is better known as Seven, a moniker that started as his graffiti tag, but has since become his nom de muraliste. After getting his start doing street graffiti in Atlanta in the ‘90s and studying to be a graphic artist after high school, Seven leapt onto the Chattanooga art scene with remarkable eagerness, his murals adorning the walls of local restaurants, gyms, hotels, and public spaces, and his fame increasing piece by piece.

Seven started painting passion projects, just a few side jobs here and there. But one mural would lead to another, and then another. In 2014, he was awarded a grant from the Glass House Collective.

“I did a bunch of pieces with that grant, but the main piece was “Flying Over the Rails,” says Seven. “That one was kind of a game changer for me. I was testing my abilities.”

A two-story mural on the side of Glass House Collective’s building at the corner of Glass Street and Awtry Street, “Flying Over the Rails” depicts a giant bird crashing through a shattering of color, representing the community’s ability to burst through the glass ceiling of inequality, and reflecting both Seven’s journey as an artist and Glass House Collective’s mission to bring positive community change to Glass Street. It has since become an iconic sight on Glass Street, which, thanks to the Glass House Collective’s efforts, has seen a number of mural projects develop with significant community involvement over the past few years, including one organized by Shaun LaRose in 2013.

More recently, Seven was awarded an ArtsBuild Equity in the Arts grant, funding a number of murals, including one on Brainerd Road at the McCallie tunnel exit, and several at the Burnin’ Bridges street art events.

“We helped fund the Burnin’ Bridges event at Art Creations in August,” says ArtsBuild Director of Grants and Initiatives Rodney Van Valkenburg. “Local and Atlanta artists came together to create murals, and there was a big food truck and music and a festival feel.”

For the moment, Burnin’ Bridges is still in its infancy, but Seven hopes that the event will eventually evolve into a full-scale street art festival.

“We honestly believe that art is critical to a community’s growth and transformation,” says ArtsBuild President Dan Bowers. “Public art of all shapes and sizes and forms is an integral part of that, and murals in Chattanooga play a big and growing role in establishing our identity.”

Connecting Communities: The McCallie
Walls Project

One day in 2014, muralist Kevin Bate was driving to work from his home, a commute that took him down McCallie Avenue. This was the neighborhood that he loved, in the town that he loved, but the view saddened him: massive warehouses with ugly blank walls, cinderblocks, and
barbed wire.

But then, he got an idea. “I thought: ‘You’re a mural artist, genius!’” says Bate. “You can paint something on these walls!”

Bate came up with a plan to turn the bland McCallie stretch into a drive-through mural gallery. He met with local businesses that agreed to let him turn their walls into canvases, while simultaneously recruiting artists from around Chattanooga to participate. Neighborhood children and adults were also invited to participate in volunteer days alongside the artists.


 


“Public art of all shapes and sizes and forms is an integral part of [a community’s growth and transformation], and murals in Chattanooga play a big and growing role in establishing our identity.”


-Dan Bowers

 


The project received an amazing response from the city, with grants pouring in from ArtsBuild, Causeway, the UnFoundation, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. EPB, the Highland Park Neighborhood Association, and numerous individual citizens contributed money and time to the effort, and Causeway brought a “cause mob” of over 50 people to knock out a giant “Highland Park” mural
in a matter of hours.

Soon rocket ships, animal-driven tandem bicycles, stained glass windows, and smiling children’s faces replaced the blank spaces of the neighborhood with splashes of color
and life.

“The community really painted it,” says Bate. “Our thought was—if people participate in these murals, they’re going to have a sense of ownership and not want to see them damaged or tagged with graffiti.”

Now, business and building owners are seeking out artists for murals. In an area that people once paid little attention, they can now enjoy the drive, stop for photos, and truly see what the neighborhood has to offer.

“When I moved into that neighborhood in 2004, people from Chattanooga looked at me like I was insane,” says Bate. “Certainly there are some run-down buildings and dilapidated houses, but there are also some beautiful houses, great businesses, and great people. I wanted people to see that. I don’t claim the McCallie Walls Mural Project is what turned the neighborhood around, but all the press and notoriety surrounding the mural project certainly got people thinking. [Murals] can change perceptions.”


 


“Our thought was—if people participate in these murals, they’re going to have a sense of ownership.”


– Kevin Bate

Community Mural (2013)
Project leaders Rondell Crier and Shaun LaRose pose with artist Myles Freeman in front of the completed collaborative community mural developed through the Glass House Collective.


(above) Photos Courtesy of Glass House Collective ©Gary Hamilton

We Will Not Be Satisfied Until
This collaborative mural, covering each side of the AT&T building on M. L. King Boulevard, has become one of the city’s most identifiable murals.

(above) Photo Courtesy of Public Art Chattanooga ©Stanley Smith

We Will Not Be Satisfied Until

(Bottom) Photos Courtesy of Public Art Chattanooga ©1504 Pictures

Encouraging Conversation: Celebrating the History of our Streets

If you stand in Point Park on Lookout Mountain and look over Chattanooga, off in the distance toward M.L. King Boulevard, you can see it—a cube of color depicting a back flipping boy bursting out of the concrete city sprawl.

Of all the murals in Chattanooga, perhaps the most known and recognized is the piece on the AT&T building on M.L. King Boulevard. In 2015, Public Art Chattanooga, then under the leadership of Peggy Townsend, commissioned the piece from mural artist Meg Saligman. The mural, entitled “We Will Not Be Satisfied Until,” covers over 42,000 square feet and all four walls of the AT&T building, and it took a team of 11 artists, led by Saligman, nearly six months to complete.

But it wasn’t just a matter of commissioning the piece and throwing paint on the building. Even before the city pulled the trigger, the idea had been floating around for years until it was finally made possible through a partnership with AT&T and grants from the Benwood and Lyndhurst Foundations. Once the process began, Saligman and her team made an effort to hear the community’s story. They interviewed numerous individuals from the neighborhood and held open community discussions about the area’s rich history as well as systemic socioeconomic and racial inequality in Chattanooga.

“As an artist, [Saligman] had this amazing ability to engage with the community,” says Public Art Chattanooga Director Katelyn Kirnie. “There are not many people that can take all that input from the community and really deliver in such an impressive way. To take a topic like racial tension and a street that is split on two sides and turn it into something that is as welcomed and hopeful and beautiful as it is – that’s really amazing.” Those conversations and community involvement were an integral part of the process.

Representing the past, present, and future of M.L. King Boulevard, the mural itself is a conversation. Long-time locals were used as models, their childhoods and experiences taking form in paint. The team used a paint-by-number system on mural cloth to allow members of the community to paint and fill in details of the piece while participating in this celebration of their history.

“Murals tell stories. They prompt conversations,” says Kirnie. “There’s so much imagery and symbolism in that mural.”

Much of that imagery was pulled directly from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. A rope of black and white strands stretches all around the mural, fraying and fragile in some sections, and strong and flourishing in others, representing racial tensions throughout the city. Human figures somersault throughout, representing the turning over of the neighborhood, as well as Chattanooga’s ability to continuously reinvent itself.

“So many of us walk that street and have no knowledge of its history,” Kirnie adds. “For the mural to remind us of that, to start that conversation, is an important role. As much as some conversations can be difficult, public art has a nice way of bringing them up.”

Fallen Five
Painted by Kevin Bate, this piece  on McCallie Avenue honors the five service members killed on July 16, 2015.


(above) Photo by James Berry

Kevin Bate, photo by Dotson Commercial

As Chattanooga has grown and evolved over the years, the city’s public art scene has grown right along with it, in many cases functioning as a catalyst for the city’s overall development.

“Murals offer more than just a pretty picture,” LaRose says. “They give voice to the communities and sub-communities within our cities that are often unseen and unheard. Murals can raise social issues and offer us the ability to pose questions for the public to consider, not to mention a safe context in which to discuss them.”

This is the power of murals. This is the power of public art. Whether celebrating our history or rebranding neighborhoods, whether kick-starting economic development or providing a platform for important, even difficult conversations, murals thrust themselves upon us with color, scale, and proximity. Our public art reflects who we are and who we want to be as a city. It tells our story—and right now that story is more colorful and hopeful than ever.

You Also Might Like

One Answer Does Not Fit All: Your Tolerance for Risk
Risk blocks balanced on a round block

Financial Perspectives Oftentimes, clients are looking for advice on whether they should pay off debt – usually a home mortgage Read more

Lessons: Examining the Long-Term Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis
a medical face mask with a map of the world printed on it

Financial Perspectives This article is a follow up to last year’s “Pandemics & Paradigms” in which I wrote: “targeted isolation Read more

The Gold Club 2021
The Gold Club Graphic

30 Influential Business Leaders Selected for both their exceptional industry skills and their dedication to their workplace and community, the Read more

Managing a Business With Multiple Locations
Exterior of the Ark pet spa and hotel

Management   Location, Location, Location! When something is good, you want more of it, and businesses are no exception. A Read more

How Local Companies Are Showing Employees They Care
Sue Collins, Executive Vice President/Chief People & Communications Officer at Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)

Management   Value and Validation Behind every successful company is a suite of dedicated and talented employees. To inspire team Read more

Top Executives on How They Define Success and What Makes a Great Leader
Illustration of small paper airplanes following a large purple paper airplane

Strategy & Leadership   Follow the Leader The Roman poet Virgil once said, “Fortune sides with him who dares.” Indeed, Read more