Nashville artists are transforming the cityscape with work both whimsical and inspired.
Mike Cooper’s mark is all over Nashville. Cooper, who is originally from Memphis, has lived in the city for more than 30 years, and for about that long, he’s been painting the town. “Painting murals for me started as a hobby — I went to college, got a degree in fine art and learned how to draft and draw to scale, do perspective,” he says. “I used all that training to develop a particular style for the kind of murals I paint."
Cooper was in the office interiors business for a number of years before his wife, Mickie, mentioned painting murals. "I’d never even considered doing it as a career, but I’ve been having a blast ever since.”
Cooper is behind much of Nashville’s art, including the zoo animals on the bridge near the Nashville Zoo on Nolensville Pike, the food-inspired wall near Nashville Cash and Carry and the mural of Vanderbilt coaches in West End — the one, he says, gets the most comments. "When the time comes around to add someone new, when Vanderbilt changes coaches, we go out there and replace the coach on the wall and have been since 1992," he says. “That wall is probably leaning it’s got so much paint on it.”
For artists like Cooper, murals are a way to showcase a separate kind of Music City art, sans the guitar pick and open mics. In Nashville, hundreds of murals line building walls, some with bright colors plastered on concrete, geometric shapes and sharp lines, others with intricate markings on muted brick, the curve of the strokes coming together to form a face or something familiar.
One of the city's more popular murals (have you seen the lines?) is Kelsey Montague’s "What Lifts You" mural in the Gulch. Yes, the one with the angel wings. Unless you've been hiding from the area, you know the round-the-block line near Biscuit Love isn't for some buttery, flaky, breakfast goodness, but for tourists and locals alike to get a shot in front of Montague’s mural.
Commissioned by Market Street Enterprises, Montague’s "What Lifts You" is meant to reflect the creative spirit of the city. “I wanted to create a piece that allowed people to step into the work and become living art. We wanted it to be a statement piece that represented the city, so I put little images inside to represent Nashville,” she says. “What Lifts You is all about giving people an opportunity to reflect on what is most important to them in their life and to [start a conversation about whatever that is] with their community.”
Another favorite, though contrasting in style, is the Guido van Helten mural in the Nations. Unveiled this past year, the 15-story mural is a striking portrait of 92-year-old Nashville native Lee Estes. Montague says the first time she saw it, she was struck by its size.
“Street art is so very powerful — it can completely change the aesthetic of a street, and like all good art, great street art can ask us to think or to look at something differently,” she says.
Estes has lived in the Nations since the 1920s, and he’s seen a lot of change ripple through the city over the years.
“The message behind it and the comradery that ensued after the creation of the mural was amazing,” says Eva Boros, cofounder of the Nashville Walls Project, an organization that connects businesses and building owners with local and international artists who can create murals on their walls. They commissioned van Helten to do the mural in the Nations on an abandoned grain silo.
“The community really embraced the van Helten mural because it represented them during a time when there was so much development going on,” she says. “Street art is an articulation of cultural presence, and it instills a sense of ownership for the local community over their public space. It tells Nashville’s story.”
For Beau Stanton, a California-based artist who worked with the Walls Project to paint a five-story mural for Rivive! at Fifth and Commerce downtown, it’s that storytelling element that means so much.
“The interaction with people who are running into art on the street on their way home from work or on their way to run an errand is so rewarding,” he says. “That excitement and the joy that people get when art is happening in their town is very, very positive.”
Stanton’s mural was for Rivive! Nashville, a consortium of environmental organizations whose mission is to raise awareness of the pollution of Tennessee’s waterways. The mural depicts a Grecian-style statue of a woman, pouring bright blue water from a chalice. Stanton says he wanted to tie the mission of the organization into the meaning of the mural.
“I’ll generally start with some small drawings that I render in Photoshop, and I do my research as well. I dove into some of Nashville’s history and into the architecture in the city too. There are some art deco ornaments that are taken from the downtown area. Nashville has a lot of classical influence as it used to be considered the Athens of the South,” he says. “Then there is the idea of water as a source of life as sort of the underlying message of the mural.”
From the artist’s perspective, murals add a lot to a city. Cooper's murals add character, color and a vibrancy that may not have been there before.
“Urban areas have been undergoing renewal for the last couple of decades, and I think public art plays a really important role in that. If you’re talking about commerce, murals have been a huge magnet for people to visit areas they might not otherwise go,” Stanton says.
From the perspective of Brian Greif, co-founder of The Nashville Walls Project, murals in Nashville just serve as a way to showcase one more creative side of Music City.
“Nashville has always been known as an arts city, and this is something that just adds to the visual scene."
Photo: The Dancing Bears, painted by artist Leah Tumerman, can be found at Easy Side Cycle in East Nashville. Photo by Megan O'Neill.