Mural artist Chris Johnson was the main attraction on South Matthews Street in Roberta, Georgia, for one week in May.
Starting at 7:30 a.m. and ending at dinner time, crowds gathered to monitor progress by Johnson and his apprentice on “Historical Links to Our Past,” a panoramic rural landscape on the side of an historical building. Some of the onlookers exhibited small-town hospitality with gifts of eggs and cookies, while others reminisced about the town’s glory days or offered suggestions on how to spruce up the area even more.
“I feel like I’m the temporary mayor,” said Johnson, who finished the painting shortly before Memorial Day. “People you don’t know stop by and share all kinds of stories with you. Sometimes I’ll let kids stir the paint or put their initials on it.”
Flint Energies, a major financial backer of the project, is hoping that excitement will stir the community’s creative juices enough to generate fresh ideas that will spark more life into the old downtown. The mural is the second to receive a $12,500 grant from the co-op’s “Rural Murals” program, a collaborative effort with local communities to jumpstart economic development. Unclaimed capital credits finance the award and applicants–community groups and municipalities–kick in matching funds and select the artist.
The Roberta mural contains images of railroads and local farmlands, including Dickey Farms, the state’s oldest continuously operating peach farm. The 680-square-foot mural appears on the side of a brick building housing a pipeline company.
“We thought that if they could see a blank wall transform into a huge living piece of artwork, they would say, ‘Wow! This is beautiful! This represents us! We need to do something more with the rest of the town,’” said Marian McLemore, vice president of cooperative communications at the co-op in Warner Robins, Georgia.
That’s exactly what’s happened about 40 miles away in downtown Oglethorpe, the first “Rural Murals” recipient in 2019. A few months after “Sustained by the Plow” by local artist Jackie Fontenot was unveiled on the side of a vacant building owned by Macon County, a flurry of projects followed. They included new streetlamps and local purchases of vacant buildings on an adjacent block.
“Our partnership with Flint Energies and this mural really ignited a fire in our community,” said Natalie Bradley, Oglethorpe’s downtown development authority director. “It was really the biggest, most exciting thing that we’ve had happen in years,” she said, adding that lack of funds had doomed past revitalization efforts, souring residents on the area’s potential.
The turnaround is heartening.
“They are really carrying out our vision of rejuvenating a downtown area,” said McLemore.
Eventually, the co-op wants each of the 17 counties in its service area to have its own Main Street mural, said McLemore, an artist herself.
“Our great vision is to have these murals dot the countryside in our service territory and pull people off the main interstates, travel the backroads, stop in these communities for Instagram-worthy moments in front of the murals and hopefully dine and shop in these rural communities.”
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.