Walls for Women project honors suffrage centenary with public art

By KATE COIL
TML Commnications Specialist

Murals are going up in cities across Tennessee to honor the significant role the state played in the women’s suffrage movement as well as highlight female artists.
Kristin Luna, president and co-founder of DMA Events who is organizing the Walls for Women project, is no stranger to public art. DMA Events has helped install murals in several communities across Tennessee since it was founded in 2018 with the goal of bringing more public art to more rural communities across the state.
“I was working on a writing project for the state about 18 months ago that focused on prominent women in Tennessee’s history in celebration of the 19th Amendment,” Luna said. “As a journalist, I’ve always been drawn to writing about powerful, creative female figures, but realizing what a pivotal place my home state had in the suffrage movement gave me the desire to do something to honor that history.”
Slowly, the project evolved from an initial one-day event to something much bigger.
“A year ago, after this fact-finding mission of mine, my husband and I and our third executive board member, applied anthropologist Emilie Hitch, started brainstorming about how we could do an all-women’s ‘paint day’ to honor the 19th Amendment centennial. Then that turned into a paint week, which eventually became a paint month,” Luna said. “We simply had too many talented female artists we wanted to work with—not to mention, many communities who wanted to participate. Logistically, it made sense to stagger all the mural installs out over the course of the month, especially because we physically prep all the walls ourselves and also like to be on hand to document the installation process. We were inspired by all the Votes for Women imagery from the 1900s, and Emilie came up with the name ‘Walls for Women’ as a nod to the suffragists.”
Luna said artists were selected for the project through a mix of submissions through the DMA Events website as well as reaching out to artists they have worked with before and artists who have been recommended to them by others. Communities and small businesses across the state were then asked if they wanted to participate in the project.
“We put out a call at the beginning of the year where any community or small business who could fund their own mural could be a part of Walls for Women, and we’d handle all the logistics—the hiring of artists, prep of the building, travel and accommodation arrangements, materials and equipment rentals, marketing, the list goes on,” Luna said. “Immediately, Visit Knoxville, Blount Partnership (Maryville), McMinnville Tourism Development Authority, and Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville jumped on board. The smaller communities who perhaps have no public art or marketing budget could apply to be a pro-bono recipient, meaning it didn’t cost them a penny to participate.”
The projects have been funded through a mix of grants and private donations from cities, chambers of commerce, convention and visitors’ bureaus, as well as local businesses and the Tennessee Arts Commission’s grants. So far, murals have been completed in Tullahoma, McMinnville, Maryville, Knoxville, Nashville, Nolensville, and Centerville.
“We were able to gift murals to the towns of Tullahoma and Centerville thanks to private funds from companies like Cycles Gladiator wine brand as well as a Tennessee Arts Commission creative placemaking grant,” Luna said. “Sunbelt Rentals also came on board to supply all of our rental equipment, which really helped out as lifts are always a huge line item in any mural project budget.
“A map of all murals across the state will live permanently on WallsForWomen.com for those who would like to take a road trip across Tennessee and see all the new art. We currently have a map of all murals we’ve completed available on our website for anyone who wants to go on an art drive at any time.”
While COVID-19 seemed to throw a wrench in the project’s plans, Luna said project organizers are turning the pandemic into an opportunity. Luna said the delay will allow the project to open up to more communities who maybe didn’t know about it initially or didn’t have the funds in place to participate in the first round, as well as work with more artists on new projects.
“We had other towns who couldn’t raise the funds in time and, as expected, cities who came calling after some major publications like Forbes shined a light on what we were doing,” she said. “We now have a waiting list for round two of Walls for Women, which we’re seriously considering for later in the fall as a way to extend the celebration throughout the centennial year. I’d also love to use this as a springboard to honor women forever going forward, not just during this centennial year.
“Our board is two-thirds women—and the lone male, my husband Scott, is a huge ally to women—so I’d anticipate it’s likely Walls for Women will become a main program of ours going forward as our nonprofit evolves. So many communities—like Sharon, Huntingdon, Viola, Madison, and beyond—are interested in us coming there next. We’re really excited about the prospect of doing more art in even more Tennessee towns in the future.”
Luna said the goal of the project is to both inspire and create a sense of unity and community.
“Public art has so many proven effects, like boosting both mental and emotional well-being, and it’s necessary in all years but especially during a pandemic when so many people have lost jobs, homes, loved ones,” she said. “We target highly visible locations—some in downtown districts or Main Streets, others near schools or parks—but also look for walls that were already in dire need of a coat of paint. It’s amazing the domino effect that fixing up a building in a highly concentrated area has.
“During past projects, we’ve seen the other buildings surrounding the mural hustle to fix up their own buildings due to the added attention being drawn to the neighborhood. A mural is a source of pride for a community and it also sets the bar high for how the other businesses surrounding it treat their own property. “
Additionally, public art is more accessible, especially for those who maybe never visit a traditional gallery or museum.
“Public art is free. It’s a universal equalizer,” Luna said. “You don’t have to be a certain age, race or socioeconomic status to enjoy it; it’s open to all to enjoy, and every viewer is going to have a different emotional response than the next. Whereas you’d have to spend money to see art inside a gallery, museum or even coffee shop, it doesn’t cost a penny to consume public art. Many rural communities in Tennessee don’t have museums, art galleries, or public art programs, and many residents in these communities don’t travel far and wide, so we hope to bring culture and exposure to the arts to them through murals.”
So far, Luna said the feedback on the completed murals has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’ve been lucky in that we’ve only been met with positive feedback in this project,” she said. “I honestly have not seen a single negative remark throughout the whole process, which is remarkable as everyone seems to be armchair art critics from the safety of hiding behind their Facebook accounts. I had no idea McMinnville was going to love the Hebe piece as much as they have, but the community feedback has been astounding.
Luna said McMinnville’s mayor in particular was extremely supportive.
“Mayor Ben Newman, who owns a law office across from the mural and was instrumental in bringing the mural to town, was so incredible in the process that he brought his five-year-old daughter down to ‘help’ paint,” she said. “He was constantly delivering the four Cincinnati artists snacks from the farmers’ market and doing other random acts of kindness like renting them kayaks so they could enjoy the area while they were in town. The rest of the tourism authority and the area’s tourism director Mandy Eller were equally as amazing to getting this project off the ground.”
McMinnville Mayor Ben Newman said the mural is already bringing members of the community together.
“It has had a wonderfully positive impact on our community just from the time that the women who worked on the project started putting paint on the wall,” he said. “I was there one morning and there were people doing their morning exercises who were telling the artists how wonderful it looked. On a daily basis I see people walking by, taking pictures of it, standing in front of it, and looking at it. Everyone I’ve talked to says how good it makes them feel and how great it looks. My five-year-old daughter and her friend got to see women doing something in a creative role and doing something so special – it was a really positive thing. It shows them they can really do anything they want to.”
The mural is also bringing visitors from other areas to McMinnville.
“We have had people from other areas of the state asking where the mural is and how they can find it,” he said. “They either want to see if it something they can do in their community or just to see something beautiful. People are traveling here to see it, and I think people will continue to do so. We have some different murals downtown and this just further excites people to want to do more. They see something like this and think ‘I can have something like this on my building.’ I think this will spur even more public art than we have now. The more art you have in your city the better off everyone is.”
Newman said the mural has many subtle references to McMinnville’s history and culture, helping reinforce the community’s unique identity.
“Having our own identity is important to showcase who we are and what we have to offer,” Newman said. “If you look at the left side of the mural there is a blue shape in different colors that represents the rivers we have here. We have 40 miles of navigable waters in this area, which is a lot for not being situated on a major transportation river like the Cumberland or the Mississippi. Some people will know the Hebe statue from downtown, but they may not know the history of it.
“Part of the mural lets us delve into our local history. That statue was placed downtown in 1914 by the women’s league. Through this, people might ask more questions about our history. The crystal structures in the middle represent the saltpeter mines at Cumberland Caverns. Saltpeter is an ingredient in fertilizers for our nursery industry and was used for gunpowder in the Civil War. This is a visual representation of our history and all of it is so well thought out.”
To see a map and list of completed Walls For Women murals as well as updates on ongoing mural projects, visit WallsForWomen.com.