Artists create for many reasons. The past year was filled with unrest, wrecked plans, chaos and loss. So, when I heard about a call for artists for a downtown mural project in Canton, I thought it could be something to bring Cherokee County art teachers Shannah Dean, Chris Lambert, Lori Thompson, Leslie Babcock, MaryJo Mulvey and me together, something we could collaborate on to help us process the challenges.
When I saw the wall, I immediately envisioned a parade of legs through history, marching toward the present moment. Sometimes, ideas crash like lightning, and this was one of those times. A friend suggested I enter, and then Susan Jones also contacted me about it. I took that as confirmation I should go for it. MaryJo wasn’t able to work on the mural, but Susan joined us, and I invited the new art teacher at Cherokee, Morgan Boswell. And everyone was in!
In early November, we were notified by the city that we were in the top three for the mural, and they wanted a life-size sample of our idea. Shannah and I created the panel and started planning how we actually could pull this off. I made a 3-inch by 45-foot paper scroll, and we placed critical dates and photos we wanted to include from 1800 to 2020 on the 540-foot wall. Then, we were awarded the bid!
We met with Canton City Council members, artists and historians on the steering committee, to show them the plan. We discussed the overall concept, dates, critical events and legends, and rummaged through exhibits and resources at the historical society, taking photos to work from.
In early February, we bundled up and went to work. We understood the overall vision, but the wall seemed longer than when I first saw it. It had 25-foot concrete sections, so we used them to break up time by decades, and began sketching out figures. As we worked, with our faces inches from the concrete wall, people would honk as they drove by. They would yell from car windows, shouting that we were doing a good job. It made us realize that we were impacting the community.
As soon as the black and white images were painted, I hardly could contain my excitement. It was finally coming to life! We transitioned to sepia, and then color. Work slowed down significantly, because painting in color takes longer than black and white. But, we delighted in the work. We made changes, erased, added images, brought in irony and folly. People brought us food, drinks, stories, tears and photos of their loved ones. They cheered us on. It was helping them find joy, too.
Finishing the mural was very different from the beginning. It went from 28 degrees in February to 94 in May, and everyone’s lives got busier. A handful of the original team finished up, just in time for the ribbon-cutting, where a crowd of strangers, stakeholders, family and friends came together to celebrate the first mural of Canton’s focus on public art. The project was bigger than any of us bargained for, but it became a huge blessing. As art teachers, we tell our students that art is a way of healing and processing life, and through the creation of this mural, we experienced it.
Railroad Street Mural: The Artists’ Experiences
“The opportunity to work on the Canton ‘Legs’ mural came at a time when I was struggling with several losses, the hardest of which were the loss of my mother in July and my husband in August of 2020 from COVID-19. Working with my artist friends on this project was a balm to my spirit. Art heals. For me, the most unexpected part of our work was the immediate interaction between us and the community. Folks driving by waved, honked and hollered, ‘Thank you!’ One day, three women walked by and began looking up and down a section of the mural. One of them shouted, ‘Here we are!’ They gathered around and began taking pictures. We asked them the significance of that section of the mural and they said it was the three of them sitting on the hood of a truck when they were in high school. I love that they are still in Canton and have lifelong relationships with one another. Art connects community.”
— Chris Lambert
“When I did work on the mural, I was grateful to have the experience to work with other amazing artists and teachers. Creating is my happy place, and to see it come together over the last few months has been exciting. Being a resident of the city of Canton, and both my husband and I working within the county, has made it even more special to contribute back to my community. It is all about giving back to others and making a difference, no matter how small, so we can find some happiness in a world that has seemed so chaotic over the last year.”
— Susan Jones
“As a first-year art teacher new to Canton, being a part of the mural team has allowed me to build community and establish a place in the city. This team has made me feel so welcome as its newest member, and the relationships I have built with them will continue to grow as we work together in the future. The outpouring of community love has been phenomenal. Each day, people stopped and said thank you for our hard work. Being appreciated as an artist is sometimes rare, so this truly revealed the heart of the citizens of Canton and their commitment to public art.”
— Morgan Boswell
“Art brings people together and helps us define community. It has been a terrific experience working on this mural and seeing the exchange of kindness as we are coming out of a difficult year of 2020. This group of artists and teachers are a joy to work with and share in the experience of how art truly unites people.”
— Leslie Babcock
“My experience in working on the mural was about the people I met while sitting on the sidewalk and painting for hours. People who use the sidewalk to get to work or the store passed by, and some drove by and stopped. I am thankful for the nice words, generosity and kindness shown by people who brought us gifts, like drinks, snacks, pizza and flowers. What I will remember most are the stories that people told me about their lives. There are so many people from different walks of life and different areas of the world that travel down this road every day, and I feel honored to have had the chance to meet them.”
— Shannah Dean
“Canton has been my home for the last 20 years, so I was honored to be a part of this project. Shanna had such a great idea with this concept of a walking timeline, from the past and into the future; I think it will have a unifying effect on the community. I learned so much about the history of Canton and its diversity. Happy to be a part of this project and to collaborate with an amazing group of artists!”
— Lori Thompson