Painting the Town

Photo by Matt Rose.

Photo by Matt Rose.

The riotous red crown and wattle of a giant rooster proclaims the Hiawassee Street entrance of Carolina Lane in downtown Asheville, and can be spotted from blocks away. Created by muralist/community activist Molly Must, the mural contains imagery referring to the turn of the 20th Century when the neighborhood was home to chicken farmers and shops catering to a predominantly agrarian community.

Today the area is mostly comprised of novelty boutiques and restaurants, but Must’s mural serves as a reminder of the businesses and residents that populated the neighborhood merely a century prior.

“I really like my murals to give light to the stories in our community that are lacking evidence,” says Must. “I consider murals to be a form of public media just like TV or radio. I think there’s a lot of progress we need to make in our cities and towns and I think murals play an important part in inspiring people

Just one block North of her Chicken Alley mural stands another prominent community project facilitated by Must — the Lexington Gateway Mural — greeting visitors entering downtown Asheville by way of North Lexington Avenue and Broadway. Painted on the support piers of the Interstate, the mural depicts a cast of colorful Ashevillians, among them a Cherokee woman, a pioneer woman, and a girl on a bike — all painted by Must.

The combined effort of six artists over the course of four years was required to complete the mural. Must’s affiliation with the Asheville Mural Project and Arts2People helped her convince city and state officials to allow the mural’s development.

As a teenager, Must travelled throughout Canada where her affection for murals and public art fomented. “I had seen a lot of amazing graffiti underneath bridges up in Montreal,” she says. “In Asheville I’d travel under the interstate bridge a lot and I thought it was the perfect canvas for some really cool street art.”

The Chicken Alley mural by Molly Must is a nod to a time when the area was home to chicken farmers and shops catering to a mainly agrarian community.

The Chicken Alley mural by Molly Must is a nod to a time when the area was home to chicken farmers and shops catering to a mainly agrarian community.

While she was a student at UNCA in 2007, Must received a research grant to travel to Philadelphia — a city known for it’s vibrant urban art scene — to learn about a process called “marouflage” — wheat pasting the canvas of a painting onto a vertical surface like a wall. She and mural partner Ian Wilkenson (current head of The Asheville Mural Project) were able to create a dynamic painting of the chess players that congregate in Pritchard Park, and then apply it as a final element in the South Lexington Mural in fall of 2011. “I actually never even signed the mural,” says Must.

These days Must is keeping busy with a new project — facilitating the development of a mural to brighten the walls of Asheville’s Triangle Park, a small park that lies adjacent to Biltmore Avenue. Often overlooked by city residents and tourists, Triangle Park lays at the heart of “The Block,” a downtown neighborhood just south of Pack Square that used to be home to a large sector of African American-owned businesses and families.

“Asheville was one of many cities across the United States that participated in urban renewal, part of a national effort during the 1950s through the 1970s to improve so-called blighted areas of cities,” writes UNCA history Professor Sarah M. Judson in her illuminating essay, Twilight of a Neighborhood. “In theory, urban renewal would enhance the landscape of cities and provide displaced residents model housing. In practice, however, many rich and vibrant communities of color were flattened throughout the United States.”

In Asheville, families and homeowners were “relegated to substandard public housing, or forced to relocate elsewhere,” writes Judson. Most businesses of

he Eagle Street and Valley Street neighborhoods were forced to shut down in a relatively short period of time.

The Triangle Park Mural aims to revitalize the spirit of the neighborhood and celebrates the history of African Americans in WNC — acknowledging the first slaves and black residents of Asheville, along with institutions like Steven’s Lee High School and the YMI Cultural Center.

With the help of money generated through a Kickstarter campaign, and a stipend provided by Americorps, Must has been working with the Asheville Design Center and Just Folks — a community activist organization — to complete the mural. “Bubbles,” a prominent member of Just Folks, is one of the community members helping with painting, along with local designer Ernie Mapp, but everyone is invited to contribute and attend events in the park hosted by Just Folks.

“Working alone I can feel very isolated,” says Must. “But working in the park with Bubbles and her grand kids and everybody is so fulfilling because it’s satisfying to do physical work with a group of people and make tangible progress together. With painting we are quickly transforming the feel of that park and it’s really cool to be doing that and to share that feeling with a lot of different people.”

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