New murals on McCallie Avenue turning ho-hum drive into an inspiring commute (with video)

photo McCallie Walls Mural Project artists Hollie Berry, atop scaffolding, and Ali Kay, in back at left, work in the 1400 block of McCallie Avenue.
photo Artist Anna Carll, seated, works on her mural in the 1500 block of McCallie Avenue.
photo Mural artist Ali Kay measures a section of her mural in the 1400 block of McCallie Avenue. It is part of the McCallie Walls Mural Project.

For muralist Ali Kay, being one of five artists in the first phase of the McCallie Walls Mural Project is a chance to do something she's never done: Create a mural completely her own. Most of her work is done in homes or businesses for customers.

"I'm used to being given an assignment for a client who has a space in mind or an idea, and I have to come up with something, so this was unique. It made me rethink it a couple of times."

Her mural - a smiling young person in a pilot's cap and goggles - greets inbound commuters traveling McCallie Avenue near the intersection with Holtzclaw Avenue.

"I wanted something that, when people saw it from a distance, it made them smile and feel good."

Other artists in phase one are Hollie Berry, Miki Boni, Anna Carll and Jarred Green. Project creator and curator Kevin Bate says he will begin painting his mural this week, signaling the beginning of phase two of the project Bate hopes will carry on for years.

Bate conceived the idea a little more than two years ago and spent the ensuing time fundraising and enlisting the services of fellow artists. To date, almost $34,000 has been raised through grants and donations.

"The idea was to take some of these less-than-pretty buildings out here on McCallie and put some stellar art by local artists on them," he says.

"The MakeWork Foundation funded the first phase, which is the four pieces we've done," he says. "We've also gotten grants from The UnFoundation and from ArtsBuild through their [Community Cultural Connection] grant. We just got a Tennessee Arts Commission grant, so we've got a lot of people interested in this project."

On Saturday, the artists held a community paint party and asked young people from Orchard Knob Elementary School, the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, the Highland Park Neighborhood Association, Barger Academy of Fine Arts and the community at large to help complete a new mural. It depicts an elongated, multi-seat bicycle with a variety of animals doing the pedaling.

Bate hopes the project is ongoing for years to come with murals decorating buildings up and down McCallie Avenue and even on some side streets. He will begin fundraising for phase two, which will be done by students in the coming weeks. Phase three will carry a musical theme, Bate says.

Buildings targeted for murals sit between Holtzclaw and Orchard Knob avenues along McCallie. The five murals in phase one are on two buildings. According to Tennessee Department of Transportation statistics, 13,634 cars a day passed that way last year.

"It's interesting that it has such a broad reach and that many people travel this street every day," Kay says. " It's pretty cool that so many people will see my work on a daily basis."

Her 13-by-30-foot unnamed mural faces drivers on one wall of an EPB office building. Running perpendicular to it on a larger adjoining wall is a four-panel piece called the "Four Horse Women" by fellow artist Berry, who is also working on her first, large-scale all-original outdoor mural. The panels depict strong female characters with a back story intended to inspire young women, she says.

"For each of the four characters I picked a woman from mythology or folk tales or pop culture who embodied an ideal like courage, wisdom, strength, leadership that I want girls to be able to look at and think, 'That could be me too.'"

The four are:

• Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols in the original "Star Trek" TV series. She was the first black actor on television who played a nonmenial role. On the show, she also took part in the first scripted interracial kiss on TV, with Capt. James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner.

• Mulan, the legendary Chinese figure who took her father's place in the army and went undetected as a woman for more than a decade. Disney made an animated film from the story in 1998 with the voices of Ming Na-Wen and Eddie Murphy.

• Ripley, the Sigourney Weaver character in the "Alien" film series. The painting also represents the "Ripley" or "Bechdel Rule," named for "Aliens" creator Alison Bechdel. The rule tests a film or book's gender equity by asking: Does the work have at least two women? Do they talk to each other? Is the conversation about something other than a man?

"That sounds like a simple test and that pretty much everything would pass, but you'd be surprised at the staggering results," Berry says.

• The fourth panel depicts Scheherazade, the legendary Persian queen who managed to avoid being beheaded by the king, a fate that had befallen 1,000 virgins prior, by holding the king's attention with her stories for 1,001 nights.

Contact Barry Courter at [email protected] or 423-757-6354.