The mural in Nashville was set to be our grand finale for Walls for Women. We perfectly timed it for the artists to finish up on the evening of the 19th Amendment centennial, Aug. 18, which they did. But we wound up having two walls that took a bit longer to get going—see: approvals, small-town politics, Historic Zoning Commissions attempting to smother creative expression—which was a blessing in a way as it extended out the program into the fall. But still, I can’t imagine a more powerful way to wrap up a month-long project than with this Black Lives Matter mural in Nashville.
Teaming up with Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery
Last fall, I was at an outdoor gathering (remember those?) when I ran into my pal Andy Nelson, one of the founders of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, and his wife Kristin. He mentioned casually that they had a huge wall on the side of the distillery that needed painting and he’d be interested in a mural; I kind of laughed it off. After all, people say that all the time and don’t really mean it.
When I saw him again at the Tennessee Distillers Guild board meeting in January, he mentioned it to both SVV and me again. Maybe he was serious after all? We set up a meeting a few weeks later with his whole team.
I’ve known the Nelson brothers for the decade I’ve been back in Tennessee, and so no one was more tickled than me that not only were they completely serious, but they wanted to honor both women and the neighborhood they’re in—at the junction of gentrification and a historically black area in Nashville—with a piece that really spoke to the neighborhood.
Two weeks later, the Nashville tornado hit, ripping through North Nashville just blocks away from the distillery. Two days after that, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Tennessee. And then everything locked down. Yet despite it all, we managed to make this project happen as a team effort with a whole lot of emails and group Zoom calls.
In July, SVV and I spent three days prepping the wall, which we estimated was roughly 200 feet long by 30 feet high, namely just a bit of rust cleaning and a primer coat on top of what was already painted brick. This was a challenge due to where the power lines are located, but Sunbelt Rentals later delivered a wide scissor lift for the artists that made their job a bit easier than ours.
The best part of working with the Nelsons were that they were completely on board with our mantra of creative freedom for the artist. And the result was nothing short of spectacular.
The story of Louisa Nelson
One of the cooler tie-ins to this particular wall wasn’t just that it fused art and whiskey (our two favorite things!), but the legacy behind the distillery. Charlie, Andy and Sean Nelson’s great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson was the founder back in the 1800s at the heyday of Jasper Daniel and George Dickel; he ran the company for decades until he died in 1891.
Then, Louisa Nelson picked up the mantle. A woman before her time, she ran Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery for 18 years, from 1891 until Prohibition shuttered it in 1909. She grew the distillery into one of the largest in the country at the time despite the great odds against her, including not having the right to vote.
Each year, the distillery holds the Louisa Nelson Awards in her memory to honor women who make significant community contributions to Nashville.
Finding an artist to paint a 200-foot wall
The biggest task was finding an artist who could handle such a massive project. So instead of just one artist, we chose two. Due to the rectangular nature of the wall—and the fact that you can barely see the whole wall in one frame—I thought it might be interesting to do a mural that fused both letters and portraits.
The issue with that is that most artists have a specialty—be it landscape, geometric, portrait or lettering. So I found a lettering artist out of Nashville, Cymone Wilder, whose work I had admired for a couple years on Instagram and reached out cold. She had never painted a mural but had always been interested in taking her lettering skills to a bigger canvas, so she said she was in.
Next, I called our friend Sarah Painter down in Florida who painted a mural in Manchester for us last year and asked if she’d be down for a collaboration with a total stranger. Sarah is one of the best portrait artists I know in the street artist world, and I couldn’t think of a better person for this project.
She and Cymone were complete strangers, but both said they’d be interested in a collaboration with a stranger, and I can’t imagine two better professionals for this task. The final mural was absolutely epic; from the time I first got the rendering back in July to every time I drive by Marathon Village, I get absolute chills down my spine at the messaging behind this one.
The inspiration for the Nashville mural
Miss Wynta-Amor Rogers, a seven-year-old activist who rose up was a face of the Black Lives Matter movement, was Sarah‘s inspiration and is depicted in the portrait in the left.￼￼￼ I am still blown away by the thought and heart and soul that went into this wall—not to mention, this is the creative collaboration of a pair of artists who did not even know each other three months ago.
Cymone: “I was pumped [about] Marathon Village; it’s a very popular location. I also love that it’s right next to the Jefferson neighborhood, which is one of the last Black communities in Nashville. For me, it felt like an important place to be … One hundred years ago, women got the right to vote, but not all women got the right to vote. [My mural] hits both sides of that issue and points to some generational themes with the imagery as well.
“It’s important to me to have Black women represented in our mural almost as an act of celebrating the uncelebrated work of Black women in the movement to obtain the right to vote for all people.”
Sarah: “Cymone and I wanted to use women’s suffrage as a springboard into the larger conversation of women’s rights as a whole—looking at how far we’ve come, where we are now, and the progress that still needs to be made … we can’t forget about the barriers Jim Crow created and how it wasn’t until many decades later that women of color and poor women could truly have voting rights.
“This wall focuses on the intersection of sexism and racism and recognizes the fact that women of color have historically been excluded from feminist movements. this mural embraces the Black Lives Matter movement, [featuring] a portrait of seven-year-old Wynta-Amor Rogers protesting at a BLM march. I chose roses as a symbol of love and solidarity with women of color. To be a feminist is to actively support the #BlackLivesMatter movement; these two efforts can no longer be mutually exclusive.”
“Towards the end of this project I had a little girl with her mother who came up and wanted to go on the lift. She rode up with me, and I explained to her about how to use different caps and how the lift works. She was fearless and curious and at only 8 years old I hope small interactions like that will help her know that not only could she grow up to paint walls larger than life, but she can grow up to do whatever she wants—not despite the fact she is a woman, but *because* she is a woman.” —Sarah Painter
The Tennessee Whiskey Trail also came on board as a PR partner and put together this great map and media campaign surrounding spirited women in Tennessee history. I could not love how this whole collaboration came together so beautifully more!
Be sure and swing by Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery next time you’re in Nashville, take a tour, sip some bourbon and photograph this beautiful wall at the intersection of 16th Avenue North and Clinton Street.