Paint Memphis 2021

Paint Memphis: No Zombies in the Mural

This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue I of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in November 2021.

Interview with Paint Memphis’s founder Dr. Karen Golightly 

Paint Memphis is a 501(c)3 organization that hosts an annual one-day festival where local and national artists add to what is now considered Tennessee’s largest collaborative mural. For this year’s theme, CommUNITY, artists transformed the walls of a building on 660 S B.B. King, which is soon to be a women’s shelter. Their website boasts that this weekend long creation process produces “the best street and fine art in the South,” and the are not just tooting their horns.

Their Instagram account (@Paintmemphis123) is filled with the artists’ riveting, wait-turn-the-car-around-what-was-that, diverse interpretations of each year’s paint theme.

I imagine that the women who will be housed there will feel inspired by the new work that surrounds them. Just to name a few: a portrait of a Latina woman in a hoodie looks out the side of her green eye at the viewer framed by a crown of bright orange white and pink flowers, Little Nas X, life-sized and shirtless, has his neck subtly doused in a triplet of diamond chains, and the side profile of a Black woman shows her diamond stud almost falling out of her earlobe as her bright orange tropical style headwrap shows off her elongated neck. 

In an email interview with Dr. Golightly, I wanted to know just how she founded this legendary community affair, and some of the challenges she’s faced keeping it going. 

LeKe’la: So, were you drinking tea one day and had an AHA! moment, or was this a gradual culmination of ideas?

Karen: I spent years and years travelling for work and fun, and like most people take photos of sunsets on vacation, I took photos of street art. I could never be sure if it would be there the next time I visited or even the next day. I wanted to capture the moment, the art, so that I could remember it. 

That went on for ten years, and every time I returned to Memphis I couldn’t find any public art, and there were very few murals. I kept going into abandoned buildings, ditches, culverts, and all sorts of unusual places to find this amazing street art. I couldn’t understand why other cities had such cool art and we had none. It took three years to convince the city to give us a wall.

So I partnered with Brandon Marshall, a local muralist and graffiti writer, and together we started Paint Memphis.

Have you ever had “bad art” that had to be removed because of inappropriate content? 

“We have guidelines set up (no nudity, no profanity, no drug or gang imagery, no zombies). The no zombies came as a result of a giant zombie that Dustin Spagola painted a few years ago on Willett. It caused a huge commotion as some members of the neighborhood found it to be demonic or racist. So now we don’t allow zombies.”

What is the artist selection process like? Is it random, or based on portfolios?

“We do a call for artists in May. We have a blind submission process and a committee made up of board members and people from the neighborhood in which we will paint to select the artists. 

I try to get graffiti artists to participate, as I think their art is some of the most interesting public art that exists. All of the rhetoric and dialogue between pieces reveals so much about the city and culture in which the artist lives. It’s some of the most interesting work that gets painted.” 

What does the building selection process look like? 

“I look for locations everywhere I go in this city. There are some places that are more difficult to get than others. We look for areas of town that are blighted or disinvested, or just places that have a lot of available walls. We have some limitations though. We don’t want to mess up any historical status, so we don’t paint on buildings that are bare (unpainted) and older than 1985. We also have building owners who contact us. Those are the best.” 

How has the project changed due to the pandemic, or did it? 

“Last year we had to hold the painting over the course of ten weeks, and we didn’t have an actual festival. We did a self-guided art walk after it was all over, but no festival. We required all of our artists and vendors to be vaccinated. Fortunately, all of our activities are outside, so that helped as well. We are proud to say that we didn’t have one case of COVID as a result of holding the festival this year.”

LeKe’la Jones is a graduating senior at Christian Brothers University, majoring in Creative Writing. Her poems have been published in CBU’s literary magazine, Castings, and the Southern Literary Festival’s 2021 publication.

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