Largely thought of as an attraction for big cities and urban areas to draw in tourists, smaller communities are turning to murals to enhance their surroundings and enliven sometimes overlooked areas. 

In Tennessee, the Walls for Women project highlights trailblazing women in the state behind the 19th amendment. The project was such a hit that after completing murals in the initial cohort of cities—Tullahoma, McMinnville, Nolensville, Centerville, Maryville, Nashville, and Knoxville—other communities expressed interest, said Kristin Luna, who in 2018 started a nonprofit with her husband Scott van Velsor called Do More Art (DMA) to bring more art to Tennessee, and to rural communities in particular. 

(Source: Courtesy of the Walls for Women)

“Walls for Women first and foremost serves the purpose of giving women a canvas on which to create, a platform through which they are given no parameters for perhaps the first time in their career and can unleash their unbridled creativity and paint what’s important to them,” Luna said in an email interview with The Daily Yonder. 

“Many of our artists were initially blindsided by the level of creative freedom they were granted as so many of them are hired to ‘create,’ then told exactly what to paint. Our program is about embracing the creative spirit and allowing artists to be artists—it truly is as simple as that, but not a freedom many muralists are given anymore in a world of business owners looking for their next big Instagram hit.”

Luna grew up in rural Tennessee and has returned to rural living in the last decade. She said that because many rural communities are lower income, residents don’t have the same level of access to the arts as their city counterparts. 

“The cool thing about public art is it’s a universal equalizer—it’s free to all to consume, you don’t have to buy a cup of coffee or a ticket to a museum, regardless of race, class or socioeconomic status,” she said. 

Luna said they typically target buildings or areas that are already in need of a fresh coat of paint. In the past 3.5 years, they have installed more than 30 large-scale murals, all but three of which were in towns of fewer than 40,000 residents. They also launched a graffiti abatement and remediation program where they hire local artists to paint original pieces over illegal graffiti/vandalization on private properties.

So, what’s the smallest town they’ve worked in? That would be Viola, Tennessee, population 144. Residents crowd-funded to bring the first piece of public art to their city, a Walls for Women piece by Oak Ridge artist Megan Lingerfelt.

Megan Lingerfelt’s mural in Viola, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of the Walls for Women)

In other communities across the country, murals are also making a mark.Often referred to as the Town of Murals, Lake Placid, Florida, has 47 unique murals across the town on public and private buildings focused on Floridian industries and activities including inland lake fishing, citrus farming, quilting, cattle driving, turpentine production, and regional flora and fauna. 

Founded in 1992, the Lake Placid Mural Society formed to beautify the town and tell its history through these murals, some of which have audio accompaniment and most of them have items hidden within the murals themselves.

Meanwhile, in Chillicothe, Missouri, there are 25 murals dotting its buildings, the first of which was commissioned in the mid-1990s. 

Back in Tennessee, Luna said challenges include uninformed regulators that often comprise zoning commissions and getting partners to truly understand what they are about. 

“But every notch in our belt gives us more confidence to stand our ground and we try and vet potential partners upfront as thoroughly as possible,” she said. “If someone comes to us and wants a wings or postcard mural and won’t entertain the idea of original art, then we know it’s not a good fit for us and suggest they seek out a sign painter instead.”

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