Cumberland mural a community effort

It was a simple task in theory, yet one that took hundreds of local and visiting artists much of the summer to complete — capturing Harlan County’s beauty in one mural on the side of Buff’s Bows and Gifts in downtown Cumberland.

Alexia Ault, the project coordinator for the Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project, said the mural was the result of over a year of community engagement.

“Over 150 community members attended our Spark events to help us determine what themes we wanted to use to tell our story,” Ault said. “We worked with about 150 community members in a year-long design process. We gave that information to the artist at Goodspace (in Minnesota), and about a dozen people worked with them to get a final design that would make our community proud of this beautiful place where we live.

“Then we invited 50 artists and community leaders from the central Appalachian region to create the mural. This was a long, exhausting, amazing process, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it. I find myself driving through town instead of the bypass on my way to work just to start off my day with a glance of that beautiful mural.”

The training was provided by local artists, plus artists from Goodspace Murals and Forecast Public Art in Minnesota. The artists collaborated with local participants during a workshop that taught those who volunteered how to paint murals.

The final design was the work of Greta McLain and Candida Gonzalez from Goodspace. Goodspace worked with a group of about a dozen local artists to select the final design. Once Goodspace left, local artists Lacey Hale, Elaine Conradi and Pam Meade continued the work. Picking the design was a community effort.

“The overwhelming theme was celebrating the natural beauty of the land through its unique flora. That is how the idea evolved,” said Conradi.

Robert Gipe, along with his administrative team at Kentucky Community and Technical College, local artists and the owner of Buff’s (Buffy Henry) communicated through e-mail which led to the decision of the theme of “Where I’m From” taken from a poem by George Ella Lyon, a Harlan County native.

The mural adds a splash of color to our small town. Conradi also spoke about the Harlan County Mural Mega Fest that took place on Aug. 2-5.

“It was a four-day event in which over 50 people from all across the region and all walks of life participated in painting on polytab workshops, completing the under painting part of the design (butterflies, milkweed, lady slipper) and establishing an under painting for the remainder of the design, which is directly on the building,” she said.

Those who participated spoke of how humbled they were to be part of it and how the techniques they have learned will be used in future murals. The reason they decided to focus on murals is because they learned that doing smaller, creative placemaking activities was a way of bringing people together to discover what the larger projects are going to be. Murals are a great way of getting the youth more involved in the community.

“Our initial murals will focus on local flora,” Gipe said, “as we are located in one of the richest, most biodiverse forests in North America, and would like to promote eco-tourism.”

The project was ultimately funded by partners for Educations GEAR UP program and is being carried out in collaboration with Harlan County High School and other youth focused organizations.

As part of Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project training, the Appalachian program organized a professional development event for visual artists looking to increase their capacity to make a living by their art through the creation of outdoor murals.

The next mural will be in downtown Harlan and will be funded by a Gear Up grant from Berea Partners for Education and will be completed in collaboration with HCHS Gear Up club and classes.