Nonprofit pays tribute to women's suffrage movement with large-scale public art across Tennessee

Contributed Photo by Odinn Media / Tokyo-born artist Juuri painted the kabuki-style "Wisteria Maiden" on the back of Memories Antiques in downtown Tullahoma, Tennessee, as part of Walls for Women. The mural honors the Japanese prisoners held at nearby Camp Forrest in World War II.
Contributed Photo by Odinn Media / Tokyo-born artist Juuri painted the kabuki-style "Wisteria Maiden" on the back of Memories Antiques in downtown Tullahoma, Tennessee, as part of Walls for Women. The mural honors the Japanese prisoners held at nearby Camp Forrest in World War II.

One hundred years after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, a large-scale art project across Tennessee is offering mural support for women's right to vote.

For the last couple of months, a nonprofit known as DMA-events (Do. More. Art.) has focused its efforts on Walls for Women, featuring original art by an all-female team of professional muralists. So far, their work appears on walls in Tullahoma, McMinnville, Maryville, Nolensville and Knoxville.

Nashville will be the final mural in this first phase of the project, with completion expected Aug. 18, 100 years to the day that young state Rep. Harry T. Burn of Niota, at the urging of his mother, offered an "aye" vote to make Tennessee the last of the necessary 36 states to secure ratification.

"We're still trying to hash out a location in Centerville, and we also are probably going to do another pro-bono mural or two in Tullahoma and maybe Manchester after Aug. 18 because we've had so much fun with this project and want to continue hiring female artists for as long as we're able," says Kristin Luna, who co-founded DMA with her husband, Scott van Velsor.

Luna says she reached out to convention and visitors bureaus in multiple communities, including Chattanooga Tourism Co., but initial efforts to secure a mural site in Chattanooga were not successful.

photo Artist Nicole Salgar talks about the inspiration for the mural she is painting at Bike N' Tri in Maryville, Tennessee as part of the Walls for Women project across Tennessee. This is the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. (Scott Keller/The Daily Times via AP)

"Maybe next round," she says.

Luna and van Velsor have day jobs as travel journalists for guidebooks and magazines, but since 2010, Luna says, they've focused less on editorial work and more for tourism boards as content creators and storytellers.

"That got us both more interested in tourism marketing, as well as livability and what makes a place somewhere others want to relocate their businesses and their families to," she says. "There seemed to be several common threads - among them, good schools, an entrepreneurial community, a craft brewery or distillery, and a less obvious one: the presence of public art."

She cites Plaza Walls in Oklahoma City and ArtWorks in Cincinnati as examples of groups that have improved their cities by canvassing the landscapes in public art. The couple began DMA as a way to champion fellow creatives and remove some of the barriers to entry for artists to create original work. Early projects have showcased male and female artists.

Luna honed in on the idea for Walls for Women after researching and writing a "Women Who Shaped TN & The World" article for the 2020 Tennessee Vacation Guide.

READ MORE: Reenactment, stamp unveiling, traveling exhibit recall historic vote for 19th Amendment

From there, DMA put out a call that any community or small business who could fund their own mural could be part of the statewide project. DMA handles all the logistics: hiring artists [only women for this project], prepping the building, travel and accommodations, materials and equipment rentals, and marketing.

Funding is a mix of grants and private sponsorships from cities, CVBs and chambers of commerce, as well as brands such as Cycles Gladiator Wine out of Paso Robles, California, "whose label is a woman on a bike and who really wanted to support a female-driven project in this pivotal year," Luna says.

For the second year, DMA also received a Tennessee Arts Commission Creative Placemaking grant.

"The TAC grants are largely supported by Tennessee's specialty license plate program, so for anyone who wants to support art nonprofits like ours across the state, joining the annual subscription is a great way to do so," Luna says.

Although some of DMA's previous mural projects have generated controversy (such as the creative revamp of a faded American flag mural in Manchester, Tennessee) or puzzlement (a bright blue octopus, named Bertha, on an exterior wall at the Tullahoma Art Center), the response to Walls for Women has been positive.

"I've honestly not heard a single negative review about Walls for Women," Luna says. "It's hard to argue with a platform that's solely dedicated to hiring female talent in a year when we're celebrating a centennial like this one - though I hope this is a catalyst [not just] for us but all industries to prioritize the hiring of women and minorities, not just in a significant year as this one."

Although Luna and van Velsor leave the murals to the artists, they do prep the walls - scraping, patching, priming then painting a refurbishing base coat to give the artists a solid, blank canvas on which to work. Van Velsor was a commercial painter for decades, starting in his teens, before and after a stint in the U.S. Navy and throughout journalism school.

Luna says they've spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours, this year on the Walls for Women project, time afforded by the lack of travel opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic.

photo Contributed Photo by Odinn Media / "Hebe," painted in McMinnville, Tennessee, by Cincinnati-born artist and scholar Jenny Ustick, is actually four murals in one. Its images pay tribute to the famed "Hebe" statue in McMinnville's town square, as well as the town's roots in the nursery industry.

Helping with the workload is Emilie Hitch, a longtime friend who last year became the third member of DMA's executive board. Hitch is a vice president at a major advertising and consulting agency in Minneapolis whose clients include nonprofits and global brands. "She's been clutch in helping us with strategic planning and all the nuances of running a 501(c)(3)," Luna says.

Not all community leaders embrace the idea behind public art, Luna says, explaining that it's not a logo, not a sign advertising a business, not something a business owner can dictate.

"Any property owner who works with DMA has to believe in our founding mission, and that's to give an artist full creative expression," she says.

Paris Woodhull, a Knoxville artist who finished a Walls for Women mural at Printshop Beer Co. in her hometown last week, says her first outdoor mural was an "exciting, amazing" opportunity.

The mural is a bold mix of blue, pink, red and orange hues on a black background that evokes the feeling of people dancing.

"It's very much inspired by modern dance," she says. "It's very interactive, very bold."

She titled it "Victoria," in honor of Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927), a leader of the women's suffrage movement and, in 1872, the first woman to run for president of the United States. Woodhull the artist is related to Woodhull the suffragist's first husband (a fourth cousin, six times removed).

It may seem counter-intuitive to not overtly adhere to a women's suffrage theme, Woodhull says, but not when you consider that suffrage was really about freedom.

"It's even better to give [women artists] an opportunity to create whatever they want," she says.

Luna agrees. "I think people are just so excited that women are being given this platform to leave their own piece of history behind, plus with the pandemic and everything else going on, the world as a whole is in need of more hope, joy and positivity," she says. "I'm grateful we can play even a small part in that."

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photo Nicole Salgar adds a few strokes to her mural high on the west wall of the Bike N' Tri building on East Broadway Avenue in Maryville, Tennessee on Wednesday August 5, 2020. This is the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. (Scott Keller/The Daily Times via AP)

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