Murals highlighting area's history transform EPB substation in downtown Chattanooga

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / A photographer takes pictures of the mural artists during the EPB mural reveal Tuesday.

Just south of M.L. King Boulevard, sandwiched between Foster and Douglas streets, EPB's downtown substation dispatches electricity throughout Chattanooga's central city through transformers, switches and wires that span more than half a city block.

To protect the downtown substation and hide its view from neighbors, EPB erected a 9-foot-high cement barrier around the substation, which over the past three years has become a type of canvas for local painters to display their art and showcase the historically Black business district.

On Tuesday, the 10 artists who painted murals along the northern edge of the substation behind a number of M.L. King Boulevard storefronts showcased their murals during a celebration at EPB's headquarters.

"We've shown that an electrical substation can be beautiful," EPB President David Wade said Tuesday during the event. "These artists have really transformed this area."

Wade came up with the idea of using cement walls, rather than traditional fences, around the downtown substation to allow artists to showcase the history, culture and art of the community with mural paintings. Over the past three years, more than two dozen artists have painted their works along three of the four substation walls using EPB grants. The fourth and final wall will be painted over the next year, with artists to be selected this fall for more murals along the Douglas Street side of the substation.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said EPB's wall murals are part of making Chattanooga "a city where creativity can thrive."

"This transforms ordinary places into extraordinary destinations," Kelly said during Tuesday's unveiling of the newest mural art works. "Public art is more than just a nice addition; it is really central to who we are."

The newest wall of murals is based on the theme of traditions in the neighborhood, and the selected artists for the murals were chosen from dozens of applicants.

Two of the murals highlight the role of the Black church in the civil rights movement, which helped propel desegregation in Chattanooga and led to the renaming of Ninth Street to M.L. King Boulevard three decades ago.

"The Black church and the civil rights movement would not have worked without each other, and they remain relevant today," artist Jody Harris said in describing his painting.

Olivia Reckert's painting on the wall depicts civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. surrounded by blooming flowers.

"I wanted to create something that was very vibrant with a lot of movement," Recker said while displaying her mural.

Jerome Foster's mural hearkens back to M.L. King Boulevard's origins as Ninth Street. when it was referred to as the "Big Nine." Adorning his mural is a large "9" that appears to be encrusted with diamonds to represent the community's value as a jewel for Black entrepreneurs.

"Historically, the area was an entrepreneur spot for African Americans," Foster said. "This was the area that Black musicians and singers were allowed to express their talents. Ninth Street was the Harlem of Tennessee at one point."

Artists who completed the murals all live or work in EPB's service territory and included:

— Jonathan Bidwell, "Write Traditions."

— Lexi D'Ambrosio, "The Foundation of a King-dom."

— Laura Swift Dahlke, "Faith."

— Mason Elmore, "The Nine Through Time."

— Karen Estes, "Love and Resilience."

— Jerome Foster, "Time to Shine on the Big Nine."

— Jody Harris, "Seismic Traditions."

— Ann Jackson, "Children are the Future."

— Caitlin Maupin, "Only Light Can Do That."

— Olivia Reckert, "Garden on Light."

The project pays artists to paint the murals and is supported by ArtsBuild, the Association of Visual Arts, Bessie Smith Cultural Center, the city of Chattanooga's Public Art Chattanooga, Chatt Foundation, MLK Neighborhood Association, Memo's Grill, Rise Chattanooga, River City Co., Stove Works, Hunter Art Museum, Urban League of Greater Chattanooga and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"The influence of the MLK neighborhood has deep cultural impacts across our community, from important civil rights landmarks to treasured musical performers," ArtsBuild President James McKissic said in a statement.

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.