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'Beauty and life and vitality.' Murals spread in KY cities as downtowns look to engage.

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 11/25/2020 Bill Estep, Lexington Herald-Leader

Not many years ago, the drive through downtown Hazard wasn’t altogether enticing, with a nondescript parking structure and a burned apartment building amid lawyer’s offices, banks and government buildings.

But now there are several new shops, an attractive arts building and murals that create splashes of color on several walls, including two painted in November.

One of the new paintings is a multicolored dove, covering a space of about 30 feet by 60 feet on the side of a two-story building on Main Street that houses apartments and an office.

The other is a pinwheel of color on the side of a tavern down the street.

“It makes the place look a lot better. To take a bland gray wall in our community and turn it into a work of art is something that we can be proud of for many years,” said Tim Deaton, executive director of the Appalachian Arts Alliance.

The alliance received a grant from the Mountain Association for the two murals created in November, a $9,000 project.

The paintings are part of a trend that has brought a significant increase in the number of murals in public places in Kentucky in recent years as local officials, arts organizations and property owners look to spruce up drab walls, inject life into downtowns, attract visitors and boost business.

Middlesboro got a grant to create its first professional mural this year, of a giant postcard that says “Greetings from Middlesboro,” with attractions such as the Pinnacle Overlook at nearby Cumberland Gap National Historical Park painted inside the letters.

“It people want to see it, they’ve got to come downtown,” said Larry Grandey, director of the city’s Main Street program.

The city has another large mural underway.

Maysville has had murals for years on the floodwall along the Ohio River that tell its history, but has added several murals downtown the last couple of years.

Students helped paint one mural of tennis shoes to decorate a wall at a community basketball court, and another painting of balloons has become popular for pictures of people pretending to hold them.

Caroline Reece, director of the city’s Main Street program, said murals can beautify drab or blank spots and help attract people to downtown.

The spots with new murals in Maysville weren’t ugly before, but they’re brighter and better now, she said.

“I think it’s a definite trend,” Reece said of cities adding murals.

Pikeville did its first mural several years ago, but has since added more public art, including other murals and an installation of umbrellas over an alley.

The umbrella project drew a lot of people downtown to take photos, and one couple got married there, said Minta Trimble, head of the city’s Main Street program.

Arts and culture are “coming more to the forefront” as cities look for ways to improve their downtown areas, Trimble said.

“This is just exploding everywhere,” she said.

Social media has helped boost the profile and popularity of public art projects such as murals.

People want things they walk around and see, photograph and post, making the art part of the stories they tell, Trimble said.

“They want to feel like they’re part of something,” Trimble said. “It just gives them something to engage with.”

Lacy Hale, an artist from Whitesburg who did her first exterior mural in 2010, in Knott County, has since created murals in Lexington, Harlan, Corbin and other cities and is busy on more.

Hale said she hopes to finish two mural projects by the end of the year, and has several coming up next year.

Many people enjoy public art and will seek out opportunities to see it, Hale said.

“I think people are becoming more interested in public art,” she said. “It can be kind of a point of destination.”

In Somerset, the local economic-development agency took part in creating a mural that pays tribute to the importance of the railroad, agriculture and Lake Cumberland in the community’s development, one of several new murals on downtown buildings.

The agency got involved because arts, entertainment and cultural enrichment are part of the package needed to promote economic development, making a community more attractive, said Chris Girdler, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Economic Development Authority.

“That’s a quality of life issue,” Girdler said.

Other cities hat have added murals recently include Corbin, Paintsville, Frankfort and Shelbyville, according to officials.

The Mountain Training Network, a workforce training program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Cumberland, held a Mountain Mural Megafest in 2018 and 2019 which provided training for artists from around Central Appalachia, said Alexia Ault, director of the network.

The program received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Ault said.

As part of the 2018 session, artists and volunteers created a large mural of a lady slipper flower, butterflies, a forested mountain and quilt pieces on the wall Buff’s Bows & Gifts, a store in downtown Cumberland.

The mural has become a popular place for photos, said Bobbie Gothard, director of Tri-Cities Heritage Development in Cumberland, Benham and Lynch.

“It just gives people something to do while they’re here,” Gothard said.

Murals and public art can be a way to boost morale in places where downtowns have faced economic decline, local officials said.

“It definitely changes what you think about your town,” Ault said.

Murals have become icons in several Kentucky cities.

Cynthiana, for instance, has gotten attention for a tribute to the popular Walking Dead comic books and television series. The original comic-book artist, Tony Moore, and series creator Robert Kirkman are from Cynthiana.

And in Lexington, a mural of Abraham Lincoln on the rear wall of the Kentucky Theatre has become a landmark.

Lexington has had murals for years, but more keep popping up, said Heather Lyons, director of arts & cultural affairs for the city.

There are now more than 50 in Lexington, including a Black Lives Matter mural commissioned by the city parking authority that went up within the last couple of months, and the Urban County Art Review Board recently approved three more, Lyons said.

The board has purview over murals on public buildings in order to make sure they are safe and to protect historic properties.

Many of the murals in Lexington are on private buildings and so don’t fall under the review board, however.

A street art group called PRHBTN has been responsible for creating dozens of murals in Lexington, raising money through donations for the projects. It has a map of murals on its site, while LexArts and Visit Lex also have guides to murals and other public art.

Murals sometimes cause controversy because of their location, size or content. Not everyone agrees on what is attractive.

One mural on a private building in Lexington caused criticism last year because of an expletive directed at President Donald Trump. The word wasn’t supposed to be visible, but the paint dried incorrectly.

Still, local officials around Kentucky said the response to murals has been overwhelmingly positive.

People often assume public money was used for a mural or art project, but that’s often not the case, Lyons said.

Many are financed by grants or donations, or are underwritten by businesses.

Murals and public art can boost pride in a place and provide more opportunities for people to get out and walk around, officials said.

They can also raise the bar on improving properties.

“One nice thing encourages you to keep creating nice things,” Lyons said.

Kitty Dougoud, coordinator of the Kentucky Main Street program, said most of the 29 member cities have public art projects.

“It’s another thing that drives traffic downtown,” she said.

Dougoud said murals can also send a message to people who might be looking to invest in the community: if a city is taking care of a wall by a parking lot, it’s taking care of other needs as well.

The murals in Hazard are part of an effort to boost downtown that includes measures such as extra cleaning and maintenance, increased code enforcement and incentive grants to help businesses get a foothold.

Artist Christine Finley, who works under the name C. Finley and has done a number of murals in the U.S. and in Europe, painted the new murals in Hazard, tracing the outlines of the images projected onto the walls at night, then working atop a swaying lift to fill them in with spray paint.

They carry messages that are appropriate for the coronavirus pandemic year of 2020, but also the challenge of rebuilding the regional economy after the collapse of the coal industry, or whatever else comes up.

The dove says “We Can Do This.” The mural on the bar says “Together.”

“I think anything that brings beauty and life and vitality is good,” said Bailey Richards, Hazard’s downtown coordinator. “The art highlights positive change.”

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©2020 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

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