McLean mural springing to life
“I had an epiphany,” Carl Moore told his artist assistant, speaking loudly over the din of vehicle traffic and a freight train that lumbered overhead as he began tracing rippled lines with a charcoal pencil onto his concrete canvas.
Within minutes, Moore had outlined his vision to Chere Doiron, who began brushing black paint into the faint traces before filling in with more colors. By nightfall, a few more feet of the McLean underpass mural would be finished.
After more stops and starts than a cross-country-bound train, a project to beautify the old, dark underpasses on McLean and Barksdale got back on track in late April, more than four years after the Cooper-Young Community Association first floated the idea to combat graffiti tags that plagued the structures.
“Graffiti is bad because, one, it’s an eyesore, obviously. It kinda makes people feel ill at ease,” said Kristan Huntley, executive director of the CYCA. “You feel like someone violated your space.”
The graffiti that once covered the overpasses in Cooper-Young was mostly street art — some of it well done and even memorable — pasted onto walls by vigilante artists and students. Huntley said police have told her it was not gang-related.
Still, she said, quoting the often-cited “broken windows” theory of urban blight, unwanted graffiti can attract crime and lead to degradation in the neighborhood. Rather than continually having walls repainted by city crews, the CYCA took a different tactic: Replacing the impromptu street art with a permanent installation to discourage vandals.
But after the initial planning, negotiations with the City of Memphis and the railroad that owns the trestles overhead stalled and nearly derailed the project. It wasn’t that anyone opposed the idea, Huntley said, just that no one had asked the railroad for permission to paint on its trestles before and it wasn’t clear who needed to give the green light.
With that issue finally cleared up this year, Moore began painting the west side of the McLean mural in late April and finished May 24. He then started on a new set of images for the east side. His bold, colorful designs were inspired by the people, food and architecture of Cooper-Young, he said, and he’s adding new ideas to his original design as he goes along.
Artist Michelle Reeves will begin the second mural at the Barksdale underpass later this summer. Her design will feature the numbers 38104 (the ZIP code for Cooper-Young east of Barksdale) with silhouettes of longtime neighbors.
Street artists tend to respect other artists’ work and often won’t cover over it, said Whitney Ransom, director of public art for the Urban Art Commission, which discussed the mural project with CYCA but did not have a formal role in it. And vandals are discouraged, Ransom said, when a community is involved in the planning and upkeep of public art.
“Once you get the community involved, there’s a real sense of ownership,” Ransom said.
The cost for the McLean mural will run about $7,000 including Moore’s commission and supplies. The Barksdale mural may cost less because some supplies can be reused. The murals were paid for by progressive dinner parties and photos with Santa last year, plus donations from individuals and businesses including Inbalance Fitness, the Eclectic Eye and the Central Gardens Association. Sherwin-Williams on Madison gave the artists a discount on paint. “They’ve just been fantastic giving us what we needed,” Huntley said.
During a volunteer-led cleanup of the site April 20 and 21 before paint went up on the walls, nearly 20 neighbors showed up to lend a hand, including several kids.
“There’s just a lot of different facets that reflect why this area is so unique and cool,” Huntley said. “It’s just a nice piece on an otherwise gloomy underpass.”
Watch the project unfold at cooperyoungmuralproject.com.
By David Royer