Two stories in the air, the lift moved closer toward its brightly colored target, then headed skyward with its cargo — in this case, Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin — on board.
“Up, up and away!” she called out. From the ground below, someone echoed, “To infinity and beyond!”
As the cage jerked forward, Goodwin held a long stick with a roller full of crimson paint, inadvertently swinging it in the air like a flag girl on parade. Somehow, the deep red pigments landed where they were meant to land and the mayor settled in to make her mark on the building — and the city.
“It’s more than just a mural. It’s a return on investment for the city of Charleston,” she said. “What we need to be a vibrant city, yes, includes tearing down vacant and dilapidated properties. Yes, it includes investing in paving and infrastructure projects. But if you also want to add tremendous vibrancy to a city, its public art is the fastest and quickest way to help get you there.”
The project, on Charleston’s East End, covers a long, rectangular-shaped exterior wall of The Red Carpet Lounge, overlooking Washington Street East and an empty gravel lot where an old building once stood.
Anna Grueser is an East End resident. She is also the manager for the Sherwin-Williams paint and supply store in Kanawha City, and knew the company was seeking local projects it could support for its annual, charitable National Painting Week.
“I live in that neighborhood. I pass that building every single day,” she said. “And it’s like, there’s this giant wall that’s standing in front of you that has nothing on it. That would be a perfect canvas.”
Around the same time, Charleston Main Streets was also looking for a way to make the space more appealing.
“The amount of money we’d have to raise to cover this entire wall would be monumental. We did not have money in the budget for a project of this magnitude,” said Ric Cavender, the group’s executive director.
Instead, the nonprofit began pulling community partners together to make it happen:
- Charleston’s Department of Public Art, whose director developed the concept for the colorful image of overlapping circles;
- Gwyn Derrick, who owns the building;
- Sherwin-Williams, which provided brushes, rollers, dry rags, extension poles, 15 gallons of primer and 19 different colors of paint;
- Sunbelt Rentals, which provided equipment, including the lift that carried the mayor to her perch;
- and a host of volunteer painters of all ages.
It had to be a relatively simple design, in part because a developer could someday build a building in front of it that would cover the painting up.
Once the wall was pressure-washed, the rendering had to be transferred onto the big cement blocks, which meant waiting until the sun went down.
“We came out here on a Friday night about three weeks ago,” Cavender said.
“We had to wait until it got dark and we got a projector out of the theater and we projected the image up onto the wall and [local artist] Jack [O’Hearn] got up there with a Sharpie and outlined every single one of these circles.”
Across the street, Keeley Steele, the owner-operator of the Bluegrass Kitchen restaurant, Starlings Coffee & Provisions and Tricky Fish bar and grill, watched with a wary eye.
“I wasn’t real happy that the building came down,” she said. “My view was that the dilapidated building wasn’t much worse than just an empty lot.”
“But now that the mural is here, I do think that is going to help bring some energy to this corner,” she said, “and hopefully that will spin into some great development to happen, which is what we desperately need.”
The design had to be simple enough that nonprofessionals could join in.
“It’s a paint-by-numbers project, right?” Cavender said.
“We did the outline. We did the trimming. Then we say, come on out. We’ll give you a brush, we’ll give you a roller and paint and you just fill it in. And it gets so many people from so many different backgrounds and even parts of the city here at this one corner to totally activate this space.”
The hope is that this newest mural — and the scores of others scattered across Charleston — can help drive the economy by attracting artists and visitors.
“Especially in the age of social media, people want to be out and about and take cool pictures. And they post them, and then they’re like, ‘Hey, this is a really beautiful space to be in. Guess what? I went to this bar, this restaurant that was here, and you guys should check it out,’” Grueser said. “And that’s going to help the economy.”
It’s hard to put a price tag on cool.
The cost of paint and supplies add up. Ditto for the use of a large blank wall and the rental price for equipment. There’s even a formula to calculate the dollar value for all those volunteer hours.
But the value of a project that engages a city and makes a space attractive and vibrant?
“It’s fun and it’s neat to have great community projects like this, but every time that this young woman here and that little boy over there drive by this mural there, they own a part of this,” Goodwin said.
“And so I think having that personal ownership to it, that kind of neat community collaboration, that’s what makes public art really, really cool.”