By Cheré Coen | Photography courtesy of Main Street Associations
A growing desire for color and beautification has transformed blank walls into outdoor canvases in many Southern cities.
The South is a colorful place, and over the years communities have decided to celebrate their history, traditions, people and cultures by spreading this color to the exteriors of buildings. Towns across the South — from ones with populations in the millions to those sporting one traffic light — feature murals in all shapes, sizes and subject matter.
Lexington has one of the oldest organized programs for creating public outdoor murals to beautify the city. LexArts, the city’s cultural development, advocacy and fund-raising organization, began the Lexington Mural Project about 10 years ago with national arts funds, grants and community assistance.
“There had been some small art projects up to that point,” said Nathan Zamarron, LexArts community arts director.
In 2008, LexArts chose three blank walls that “were mural ready,” and enlisted community support, Zamarron explained. Before long, residents wanted more. Murals were painted on old bourbon warehouses, within downtown Lexington and on the sides of old buildings. One of the most iconic murals is the colorful Abraham Lincoln on the Kentucky Theater’s back wall.
Today, Lexington offers about 30 murals, in addition to the temporary murals created each fall for a festival-style event called PRBTHN (pronounced Prohibition), which will be held this year Oct. 8-15. The murals aren’t tourist attractions themselves, Zamarron said, but they add to the city’s ambiance.
Water Valley, Mississippi
This quaint small town in northern Mississippi was once a railroad hub, so it’s natural that its first mural would depict that history. Artist Kremit Kroll highlighted the Illinois Central Railroad, which serviced the town for more than 100 years, in his mural on the outside wall of the Water Valley Cleaners & Shoe Repair.
Other murals include an abstract piece by artist William Warren in a small park as well as Warren’s 1907 newspaper promotional cartoon on the side of The North Mississippi Herald newspaper office, framed and installed by Main Street Director, Mickey Howley.
The historic Crescent Line railroad inspired a “ghost” mural across the street from the Amtrak Station encouraging passengers to visit Laurel, the “yellow pine capital of the world.” Local sign painter Will Sellers created the mural to look 50 years old, even though it was completed in 2015. Faded-looking signs reminiscent of the past are often called “ghost” murals.
Laurel’s five outdoor murals are designed to celebrate the city’s history or to identify a building, according to Judi Holifield, executive director of Laurel Main Street, which funded several of the mural projects.
f the most popular for photographers as is the “Welcome to Historic Downtown Laurel.” Painted on the side of Mall Printers at Sawmill and Central Avenue, the iconic mural is recognizable in the opening credits of HGTV’s new Home Town series. Appropriately, the mural was designed by artist Erin Napier, co-host of the HGTV program, for a Leadership Jones County project.
A street scene, created by local artist Mandy Buchanan and painted by students, is the city’s oldest mural. Located in Pinehurst Park, the colorful artwork was a catalyst for beautifying the city with other outdoor murals.
It’s impossible to miss Shreveport’s “Once in a Millennium Moon,” a 25,000-square-foot mural created by Meg Saligman in 2001 to welcome in the new century. The mural is one of the nation’s largest and covers two sides of the AT&T building in downtown Shreveport.
Saligman enlisted the help of more than 2,600 community volunteers to create the eight-story mural, which took more than a year of painting to complete. The images depict the people of Shreveport, their tragedies and triumphs.
Free parking is allowed at the site along with a guide that explains the different subjects inside the painting.
Other Southern Cities
To list the Southern cities containing Robert Dafford’s murals would fill a book. In fact, his art is featured in “The Public Art of Robert Dafford” by Philip Gould, published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.
The world-renowned, prolific muralist, who was born on a train in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and reared in Lafayette, Louisiana, depicts cultural and historical elements in his murals.
In Port Gibson, Mississippi, Dafford honors Kenneth Ross and the 1960s economic boycott, which resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that citizens’ boycotts were a form of free speech.
The Civil War takes center stage in Dafford’s murals in Vicksburg. One of Dafford’s favorite murals is an interior piece inside the Regional Medical Center in Conroe, Texas, a surreal landscape that rolls into curtains at its edge.
“The hospital is theater where a play of life and death takes place,” Dafford explained.