Painting The City: Muralists Memorialize Neighborhoods, Culture

Certainly by now you have realized that murals are having a renaissance. Seemingly every day a new one appears, many with heavy doses of graffiti-inspired color and style. Businesses and corporations are embracing the colorful, outdoor paintings by sponsoring artists to decorate the sides of their buildings. 

For LEO’s 2020 Winter A&E Guide, we interviewed several muralists, including Casey McKinney, who was chosen to create the 2020 Kentucky Derby Festival Poster; Kacy Jackson, who recently finished a mural of Muhammad Ali; Victor Sweatt, who turned the history of Smoketown into art; and Liz Richter, who won the Louisville Visual Art Honors Emerging Artist Award. Below, you can read the entire package of stories in order, or use the above hyperlinks to skip around.


Casey McKinney.

First Kentucky Derby Festival Poster By A Muralist

By Kevin Gibson 

Being a muralist is a bit different than being a traditional painter, in part because a muralist is typically using spray cans rather than brushes. Another difference is the surface can be almost anything, versus a flat canvas, and it is generally scaled up. Painting on canvas brings fewer surprises than painting, say, a brick wall on the side of a building.

But as urban murals have grown into a true art form — versus just young people “tagging” buildings and billboards — artists such as Casey McKinney are becoming more and more recognized for their vision and craft.

McKinney, 44, has been chosen to design the 2020 Kentucky Derby Festival poster, the first time a muralist has been selected for the honor. Pretty soon, the self-described military brat will see his work on posters, T-shirts and even Four Roses Bourbon bottles. He’ll start working on a mural of the poster in February. It will be on the west side of Third Street between Market and Jefferson streets.

McKinney’s vision for the KDF poster was one of bright colors, from a blue-tinted Pegasus to hot-air balloons, fireworks and color splashes that resemble springtime flower blossoms. The title, “Pegasus in Bloom,” reflects the season beautifully.

“It plays on the time the Derby festivities start happening,” McKinney told LEO Weekly. “Springtime, the flowers are in bloom. It’s definitely the most exciting time to be in the city; it has a different vibe than the rest of the year.”

He explained that the “explosion of color” in the painting is meant to reflect the explosion of life during the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby each spring. “Everybody wants to look their best and everything is kind of blooming,” McKinney said.

For the Kentucky Derby Festival, the plan had been to eventually involve mural art. When the committee to choose this year’s artist saw McKinney’s work, its members realized it was time to make that move, even if it was sooner than expected. While artists submit their previous work, they also are asked to present a concept for the KDF poster.

McKinney killed it with his portfolio of what he sometimes calls “aerosol art.”

“When we started narrowing it down, his mural work is what really caught our eye,” Jennifer Morgan, who manages merchandising for the Kentucky Derby Festival. “From basements to sides of buildings — that drew us to him more so than his concept. We knew he was capable of doing large scale work.”

While his initial concept eventually evolved into “Pegasus in Bloom,” the artist’s aesthetic was true to his many murals which can be found, literally, all over the country.

HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE

McKinney grew up, well, everywhere. 

His father was in the U.S. Air Force, so his family moved often, finally landing in Kentucky during McKinney’s teenage years. For a time, the family lived in Washington, D.C., early in his high school years.

While he’d always been interested in art, it was in D.C. where he became involved in urban art. He took his skills to the streets to tag buildings, trains and whatever else looked like a blank canvas to his youthful eye.

This so-called “tagging,” which is also called “graffiti,” can be vandalism, depending on the circumstances. It has gradually evolved into a recognized, mainstream art form. It was always McKinney’s first love, even as he attended art school.

At one point, he recalled, he shared a house with three art students, each focusing on different mediums but always eager to talk art and form. McKinney said the atmosphere inspired almost nonstop creativity in all four of them. These three friends, like him, are all professional artists today, he said.

“Not everybody is fortunate enough to get to practice their profession when they go to art school,” McKinney said. “We’ve all kind of branched off and done our own thing now.”

Over the ensuing years, McKinney created murals across the city and beyond, in all sizes. If you’ve been out and about in Louisville, chances are you’ve seen his work. Of course, Louisville has become a mural-friendly city in recent years.

Last October saw the first-ever Imagine 2020 Mural Festival, sponsored by the Fund for the Arts, Louisville Visual Art and Imagine Greater Louisville 2020. Thirteen murals in all were completed in the Smoketown neighborhood, painted by artists such as Annie Hamel, Victor Sweatt, Liz Richter, Ashley Cathey and others.

The murals, which depict images that acknowledge the city’s history of racial discrimination, were part of “Lean Into Louisville,” a civil education and arts initiative.

McKinney didn’t participate in that festival; however, he recently completed a 60-by-20-foot mural near Central High School for the Imagine 2020 festival. He’s also painted a number of murals in doorways, along with one near the Clark Memorial Bridge (near the Troll Pub) and the 6-foot mint julep mural located at Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen.

It’s not considered simple graffiti anymore.

‘STREET ART REDEFINED’

That McKinney could take a teenage hobby and turn it into a profession speaks not only to the social acceptance of urban art but also his talent and vision. He’s done murals all over the U.S. and is more than willing to travel “whenever duty calls.”

One client was a small retail chain called Bluetique, which at one point had a location in Lexington. He painted murals on facades outside the stores and also on the walls inside, giving the businesses a unique vibe. But he also does gallery shows, including several at Revelry Boutique Gallery in NuLu.

“They’ve been well attended, they sold well,” Revelry owner Mo McKnight Howe said of McKinney’s shows. “They’re really kind of street art refined — kind of bringing the street into the gallery and being able to take a mini-mural home with you.”

What she enjoys most about McKinney’s work are the subtleties. She pointed out murals that may have letters that, upon close inspection, spell words and themes. Sometimes there are figurative images, she said, that can be translated into a message or story. “It takes you a minute to see these little hidden gems inside these abstract graffiti-esque forms,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it or done as well. Not every street artist can translate into a gallery setting, but I think Casey has done a really good job of that. His stuff is really beautiful. It’s almost as if he’s made graffiti into abstract works of art.”

His ability to paint on any surface also impresses her. At one of McKinney’s shows, McKnight Howe presented him with an old piano to paint. The brightly colored piano is still on display in the gallery.

NOT A ‘KNUCKLEHEAD’

A key feature of McKinney’s persona as an artist is an air of casual humility. His demeanor is as endearing as his work to those he’s worked with. During a conversation with LEO Weekly, he refers to himself as a “knucklehead” and says he’s “numb” to people’s perceptions.

In fact, one of his favorite exercises is creating live art during events like Forecastle and NuLu Fest. He isn’t distracted in the least when passersby stop to chat with him or ask questions about his art. In fact, he welcomes it as part of being an urban muralist. “I’m always open to talking to everybody around,” McKinney said. “That’s just the thing, when you’re working on murals, you’re in different neighborhoods. I’m always open to talking to whoever’s around. I guess I’m just a personable person.”

McKnight Howe considers McKinney “one of the OGs of the mural scene in Kentucky,” having begun painting urban murals well before it was popular, dating to the 1990s. “He kind of started that scene,” she said.

She loves working with him in part because of his humility. Morgan feels similarly. “He’s very quiet,” she said. “He doesn’t really want a lot of hubbub about himself. He’s very laid back but he’s very talented. And he’s humble about it.”

Predictably, McKinney takes his Derby Festival poster recognition in stride, while also acknowledging it is a high honor in Derby-mad Louisville. He’ll no doubt take his trademark laid back personality into the spotlight as he participates in signings and other events during Derby Festival season.

“My wife and her family are like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!” McKinney said. “It definitely is, but maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe when I see it on a T-shirt or a bottle of Four Roses it will sink in. It’s definitely super, super cool. I couldn’t be a luckier guy.” •

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Kacy Jackson.

Kacy Jackson: Found In Streets And Online

By Danielle Grady 

In many ways, Kacy Jackson’s journey from doodler to muralist has been thanks to Instagram. That’s where he got the inspiration to grow his talents, as well as where he and others share pictures of his work, with hashtags and filters. “At the end of the day, that’s what it kind of boils down to,” he said. “Your portfolio nowadays is your Instagram account.” And that social media attention has garnered Jackson, 28, several commissions around town: a rainbow lion at the Mellwood Art Center, vibrant depictions of Russell residents at 14th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard and three murals on Logan Street alone. In October, Jackson was selected to create a piece for the Miami zoo. LEO talked to the artist about his largest work yet, in Smoketown, his process and what he does when he makes a mistake. 

LEO: Your Smoketown mural of Muhammad Ali has a lot of energy. Where did you get that idea?
Kacy Jackson: Well, with that one, it was all about unity and just being one of the artists, well, one of the few artists that was actually outside of the Yum Center during the memorial service. If you’re looking through some of my past work, you’ll see I started at the memorial service, and I kind of used the spin-off of that painting that I did, which is named ‘Unity,’ to kind of represent what the neighborhood was about and also what Muhammad Ali stood for, as far as bringing everyone together, different cultures, different races. 

What do you do when you make a mistake, because it’s such a big surface?
As an artist, I never feel that there’s a mistake that can be made, because I always feel like that if I’m creating artwork, I can always improvise or cover up or fix anything that happens if I don’t feel like it’s going the right way. A big example in that mural was when the mural got defaced maybe three-fourths of the way finished, and I had to go back and spend another week. Someone came through with orange paint, it was actually on the floor, you can see it on the floor, but it was also on the face, like a rainbow effect. As you see now, it’s covered up, but I just covered it up, spray painted it, everything back over and, you know, just kind of did touch-ups and stuff, kind of hid it. If you get real close, you can maybe see a couple little speckles of orange, and if you look at the floor, you can see the whole entire thing, bright orange.

What’s the process for creating a mural and what materials do you use?
The process usually starts with a design rendering, which I use in Photoshop. I Photoshop something nice, I send it to the  committee or whoever is doing the commission. From there, I just work on it piece by piece until I get everything finished. I use spray paint, latex and airbrush it occasionally.

Have murals become more popular with the advent of social media, and do you ever craft your work with the thought of people taking pictures in front of it?
Oh, most definitely. I always look for something that’s going to be engaging. Well, engaging for the community and also real impactful. But I always also think about, how would this look on Instagram as well, because at the end of the day, that’s what it kind of boils down to. Your portfolio nowadays is your Instagram account. 

Have you seen your murals pop on Instagram, people taking photos of it and posting it? How do you feel about that?
Oh, it feels crazy. Always. It feels like, ‘wow.’ The one from the Mellwood is nothing knew to me now, but if I see the Muhammad Ali one or the recent one I just finished in the Russell neighborhood, if I see that I’m like, ‘okay, wow, people’s really catching onto it.’ Not just looking at it like this is a poster board or something. They’re understanding that it’s actually history, and it’s also informative stuff. 

As far as your background goes, what was your artistic history leading up to you becoming a muralist?
Just drawing on my paperwork, drawing on my homework after I finished, or maybe if I’m not finished but got a little distracted. So with that, it kind of transitioned into tattoos. So I was doing tattoos for a while, and then from tattoos, I just got tired of the people I was running into, because I wasn’t doing them on a large scale. So, I just switched over to doing painting as a 9-to-5 job, and people started liking the painting I was doing, so I was like, you know what, I want to do this on a bigger scale. Which, through Instagram, I’ve seen people doing murals on Instagram and stuff, so I wanted to do that too, back in 2016. 

How did you get from just wanting to do it to actually doing it?
Well, I’m the type of person I believe if I want to do something, I’m going to do it, just like, the moment I thought about it, that’s the time I did it. So, when they commissioned me to do a $1,600 piece inside of a laundromat representing Louisville sports and stuff inside of the Parkland neighborhood, that was my first large-scale mural. •


Victor Sweatt.

Victor Sweatt: ‘History Is An Intricate Part Of Being’

By Jo Anne Triplett 

Victor Sweatt’s mural at Joe’s Neighborhood Food Mart, 542 Lampton St., celebrates Smoketown itself, the location of the Imagine 2020 Mural Festival. It features people important to the neighborhood: Shirley Beard, owner of Shirley Mae’s Cafe & Bar; civil rights activist Albert Meyzeek (Meyzeek Middle School is named after him); Fred Stoner and Joe Martin, both associates of Muhammad Ali; and the Rev. William Henry Sheppard (Sheppard Square is named in his honor). The 56-year-old muralist said he drew inspiration for the piece by listening. “I would end up talking to the early risers on their way to work and listen to their stories of growing up in Smoketown,” he said. “The stories shared were inspirational; it was a lot of fun and thought provoking.” 

LEO: Your mural is a homage to the people, past and present, of Smoketown. How did you come up with the idea for this mural and why did you choose the people you did?
Victor Sweatt: After being chosen [to create a mural], I researched Smoketown’s rich heritage and culture through the Western Library Colored Branch and websites. Since the images were scarce, I connected with every Smoketown organization that I could find online and asked the residents what they would like to see as a mural. The memories were plentiful … I chose the direction of the mural because history is an intricate part of being. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you may not know where you’re going. The goal of the mural is empowerment. There are people and places that are etched in history that have graced the same paths we walk daily. Knowing this helps us add on to the legacy. I chose people that were instrumental in bringing change, with continuous hard work, to a racially biased society. Learning about these entities was awe-inspiring. 

Did you get to choose the location for the painting?
It was selected. Initially it was the side facing the street, but the electrical wiring posed a problem. I wanted to shock the people but not to that degree! After asking the [Imagine Greater Louisville 2020 Steering Committee], we jointly decided that the opposite side would not only suffice but offer different qualities, with no wires or window to interrupt. 

How long did it take to complete it?
I started my mural on Sept. 10. I chose an early 7 to 8 a.m. starting time to avoid the summer’s heat and also because as the sun makes its way to the working side of the building, it’s difficult to gauge the true colors because of the intense glare. That was the goal, but, needless to say, it didn’t work out as planned. I would end up talking to the early risers on their way to work and listen to their stories of growing up in Smoketown. The stories shared were inspirational; it was a lot of fun and thought provoking. I finished the mural on Oct. 11. 

What media did you use?
I used museum quality, non-toxic acrylic paints and spray paints. I wanted to create an ambience, so I used a loose and painterly style with vibrant colors to invoke feelings. After the viewer has seen the figures, places and names once they may feel that they’ve seen it already. The unusual colors and layers are used to draw the viewer in repeatedly.  

What’s your artistic process?
It depends on the project. [For this mural], I emptied my thoughts and listened intensely to their vision … I made sure that we were on the same page by asking the desired outcome. For my personal art, it’s a lot easier because I’m inspired by life and its simplicity. Capturing social injustices and inequality are also part of my journey that I choose to visualize. A beautiful mess is how my friend coined the phrase. I’m an artist+activist=artivist. 

What other murals have you done?
I’ve created murals at Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, the Southwick Community Center, and at Cecil Avenue and Greenwood, 16th and Muhammad Ali Boulevard and at 13th and Madison.

Are you working on any now?
I’m working on W.I.S.E. (What I See Enterprise), a youth orientated program that focuses on mastery of the arts, such as spoken word, visual arts, theater, photography, video and dance. Empowering the youth not only through self-expression, but teaching them how to be self-sustaining in these areas. I am presently seeking funding for a children’s book titled ‘Speak Up.’ It will empower children in the prevention of sexual child molestation and working on a series to raise money for the homeless.  

And I have to ask: How often did you eat at Shirley Mae’s Cafe?
I’ve only eaten at Shirley Mae’s once. A friend took me, and the food was delicious. •


Liz Richter.

Liz Richter: For Neighborhoods, Chosen By Neighborhoods

By Danielle Grady 

Liz Richter is a muralist who dislikes the spotlight. It serves her at times, because her work, ultimately, is about its home neighborhood rather than her internal thoughts and feelings. Then again, as her projects get bigger and bigger, her share of the attention grows, too (case in point: this interview). “So, I’m learning that I can do it and I enjoy it if it’s about something other than myself,” she told LEO. Richter, who is 34, has held the brush behind several murals about town, including the eye-catching image of a breastfeeding mother in Smoketown, commissioned for the Imagine 2020 Mural Festival, and a happy scene of flowers, created at the behest of Google Fiber, on the side of Red Tree in NuLu. Recently, she won Louisville Visual Art Honors Emerging Artist Award. Here, she explains the meaning behind her most maternal mural and the deeper reason behind why her work is so colorful. 

LEO: What do you think murals do for the neighborhoods that you paint them in?
Liz Richter: I think neighborhood murals, when I do it for a community, they can serve a lot of different purposes. What I really like to do is collaborate with local people to figure out what should that purpose be, what should that message be. It can be educational; it can be inspirational; it can also be about creating a place, a landmark for a neighborhood, establishing identity, celebrating diversity. I’m not about doing street art just for the sake of doing it. It has to have a purpose or a meaning bigger than myself in order for me to go through that much work and all the things about being an artist that I don’t love — like, I love being on the wall, but there’s a lot that goes into public projects that I don’t love.

What are the challenges of public art? You said some things about it you don’t love?
So, the publicity part of it is, I think, hard for me. I’m not the kind of person who really wants a lot of attention on myself, which is why I think I got into public art, because I can do it and then walk away, and it belongs to everybody. And it’s just like, my name’s at the bottom, and I get to appreciate other people interacting with it, but the ownership immediately leaves me. But, as I’ve learned, to do bigger and bigger projects, I do end up in the spotlight. So I’m learning that I can do it and I enjoy it if it’s about something other than myself. Like, I’d much rather be talking about mothers and babies in Smoketown and the challenges that they face. Or the history of Hikes Point and what a unique city that is. Or even NuLu and, you know, the awesome local business presence here and how that’s represented in the florals that I did over on the side of Red Tree.

You mentioned one of the murals that has caught my attention the most, which is the breastfeeding mother, so what does it mean and who is it for?
It was a design that I came up with after looking at the neighborhood plan of Smoketown and the high population of babies and young children. I think it’s like, I can’t remember, 13% of the population is under the age of 3, something like that — really high statistics of really little kids and a lot of really young parents living in poverty. [13% of Smoketown’s population is under the age of 5, and the average median household income was $22,250, according to a 2017 neighborhood profile from the Kentucky State Data Center at UofL and Metro United Way.] And so, having a 3-year-old myself, knowing the challenges you face as a young parent, it just kind of struck home with me, and that kind of combined with something that’s been on my mind lately, which is some national statistics about minorities and breastfeeding and how they have a lot of additional challenges and there’s a lot of reasons that they choose not to breastfeed, most of which are societal pressures. 

And then also Smoketown as a neighborhood is really unique. They have this very mothering community. There’s a lot of organizations that do a lot of work to take care of that young population, the population living in poverty. 

So, it wasn’t really, like, necessarily a statement about breastfeeding, it was more about the idea of being nurturing and connected to your community and then also celebrating parents in general, those selfless acts you do all the time as a parent that no one sees.

You’ve created murals for the Imagine 2020 festival, but you’ve done work for Kroger and Google Fiber. What is the difference in how you approach a piece commissioned by a corporation versus for Imagine 2020?
Yeah, so the Imagine 2020 Festival was really unique because it was like, they put all the images up. The artists, we were commissioned to design images, but the community chose which ones they wanted on the wall, and they chose mine. So, that to me was really meaningful that the community themselves, they were saying this is what we want to represent us. Whereas, when I do a project for a corporation, it’s a little bit more of a direct commission process. But, even so, the way I approach it, I still have to consider those things, because the way I approach art is just, like, I’m not from the street art world; I’m an educator. So, the way I approach it is if it’s not educational, if it doesn’t serve some sort of greater good, like, I love street art in every form, but for me, anything that I do needs to serve some sort of purpose in order for me to get excited and committed to it. 

The colors you use are bright. Has that always been your style, or is that the way murals are expected to look: bright and happy?
I think it’s some of both. It’s always been my style to use a lot of color and just sort of be over the top. But also, my background is a little bit in advertising and illustration and that’s just sort of the best way to do a mural, because you’re viewing it from a distance and you’re competing with all the signage and buildings and street lights and everything, like it does need to have that really bold presence. 

But, it’s mainly because I love color, and I just can’t not use it, and it makes me happy. I have this emotional reaction to color I’ve talked about before. And the larger the color is, the more encompassing the color it is, the more powerful that emotional reaction is. So, a lot of the colors I choose for murals have a lot to do with that emotional connection that I’m trying to make with the viewer in that split second that they might see it driving by, that they have some sort of positive emotional reaction. 

You were an art teacher and painter before a muralist. What has it been like transitioning from small medium to a mural?
It’s definitely been an evolution. I started doing murals inside of schools, working freelance for the [KMAC Museum], that’s how I started doing murals, mainly because none of the other educators wanted to do them, because they’re just a ton of work, and very hands on, very physical.

So, there was that in between where I was doing smaller scale murals inside, and I was very interested in street art, following along with that scene, and I just kept trying to find opportunities to get bigger and go bigger. 

I’m very millennial, the pathway that I’ve taken to get here to what I’ve wanted to do has been very all over the place. I’ve tried a lot of different things and this seems to be the thing that continually excites me and where I’ve sort of found, like, I can do this, and I can do it in a way that’s successful.•


 

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