The idea to bring a mural to Centerville came to us more than a year ago via a dear friend who previously worked for the state’s tourism department. She absolutely loves Centerville—since I have known her, she’s consistently extolled its unparalleled charm and potential, including its Minnie Pearl legacy, the Piney River and the downtown square—but told us it needed just a little more “oomph” to draw the attention of visitors off the interstate to rural Tennessee.
Hickman County overlaps I-40, so prime location for road trippers looking to pull off for a spell, with Centerville just 25 minutes from the interstate, and sometimes all it takes is a little bit of public art to coax travelers to hop off course.
So when we were strategizing Walls for Women and where to do our couple pro-bono murals, Centerville made the short list. After all, our heart lies in rural communities who need a little help from tourism marketers and art advocates like us, and Hickman County, just an hour outside of Nashville, fit the bill.
When I reached out to county representatives in January to ask if Hickman County wanted to be a part of Walls for Women, they loved the idea, but didn’t have a robust marketing budget to participate outright, nor any annual funds set aside for public art. In fact, they’d even received funding for a mural in the past but ran into many roadblocks that prohibited it from ever happening; needless to say, the town and its citizens were ready for public art. Sometimes it takes out-of-towners—in this case, a determined pair from two hours down the road in a rural town not unlike Centerville—to be the change a community needs.
In the spring, we visited Hickman County a few times for a marketing project, and I told our contacts there that if funding came through for Walls for Women, our nonprofit’s state-wide celebration of the 19th Amendment centennial, then Centerville would be at the top of our list. They were thrilled at the prospect and promised to assist in any way needed.
And while it took some time thanks to the pandemic and the delay of the passing of the state’s budget, in mid-July, we found out that we received a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission that would fund a piece of art in Hickman County at no expense to the town itself. So the wheels started turning, and our contacts there got to work securing us the best wall in the town square, one just beckoning for a mural.
As a fellow rural Tennessee native, one of my big goals as a nonprofit founder and president is the need for rural areas to have more access to the arts. This is a bit of a Catch-22, however. The very rural areas that need an infusion of culture often embody a certain kind of naïveté of what art should be—suddenly, everyone is an art critic, and everything should represent the town or a piece of history—and it’s just exhausting trying to explain that no, this is actually the exact opposite of art (i.e. dictating what an artist should do).
Walls for Women incorporated 14 artists: half of whom were local to Tennessee, the other half of whom we brought in on residencies from out of state. When we were brainstorming who should paint in Centerville, we couldn’t think of a better artist than someone from and residing in the region who understands the unique challenges of rural Tennessee and one who would be resilient to fight the bullies should any come her way. Because in small towns when it comes to art, there are always bullies, and without doubt it comes down to a lack of control and the fun fact that the U.S. Constitution grants private property owners the rights to do what they want with their own buildings.
Enter artist Whitney Herrington, who grew up nearby in Columbia and teaches art at the high school in the Mount Pleasant; we found her via murals she’s painted throughout Middle Tennessee, and it turns out she lives just one turn away from the Centerville square. It’s rare that you find a professional muralist in more rural parts of the South—someone who can scale up to a 20-by-60-foot wall and it not look like a children’s finger-painting—so coming across Whitney felt like unearthing a diamond in a coal mine.
And as always, it was important to get the right person on board as a champion to explain this to the community. Luckily, on our second try, we’d find that very person (or rather, people) in Centerville. After one wall fell through thanks to the building owner not understanding the aforementioned concept of original art, we were introduced to the biggest developer in town, whose property manager generously offered us one of the most prominent walls in Centerville.
Small town or big city, Whitney didn’t care: She wanted to paint the kind of art that speaks to her soul, that fuels her being, and that’s what Walls for Women is all about: allowing women the opportunity to create without restrictions. Because I think all my gals out there can agree: We’re told how to speak, what to wear, how to behave, what we should and shouldn’t do with our bodies, and it’s just exhausting. Walls for Women contests all of that by allowing female artists the space to be themselves—without parameters.
One hundred years ago, women had very few choices; as a nonprofit, we wanted to be a part of the shift in mentality that women can do, be, say and paint anything they please.
Whitney showed up that first day to draw lines, and we immediately knew she was our people. At her core, she’s a 70’s-loving, VW bug-driving, vintage fan whose art reflects the era. The “Punch Bug” she created for Centerville is such a fun brand of whimsy that really rounded out the Walls for Women trail and provides a unique spin on an interactive mural that, thank God, had nothing to do with wings.
“The Punch Bug artwork was actually my second design for Centerville. Originally, I was planning to do a large floral bouquet, but when that idea didn’t go as planned, I changed course,” she recently told me. “I love to paint flowers, but thought that it was a little generic when I saw the work of the other Walls for Women artists. Their work was so in-tune to their individuality. So, I decided to do a design that was reflective of me as an artist as well as me as an individual. I have a 1974 VW Super Beetle named Alice and I based this design around her. This mural is 100 percent me and I am so pleased with the outcome.”
This mural became a really fun collaborative effort as the whole community was behind it. From the very first evening, business owners, curious residents, city council members, the chamber director, and so many small business owners came out daily to support Whitney, bring her lunch or simply give her a virtual fist-bump or distanced nod of approval.
Sydney, a budding 15-year-old artist who lives nearby and is homeschooled, showed up on the first day and asked if she could help. Whitney was thrilled to have a talented apprentice and allowed Sydney to help out through the entirety of the project. Public art exists for so many purposes, but instilling civic pride is one of the biggest benefits. Allowing a local art lover who wants to follow in Whitney’s footsteps to be a part of the mural creation was a step up and one of the cool byproducts of this project.
We also wound up hiring a quartet of off-duty police officers to monitor Whitney over the two weeks it took her to complete Punch Bug, mainly because she was often painting alone on a square that shuts down at the close of business days, and we wanted to ensure her safety as we couldn’t be physically present at all times. And what do you know—the local police force became a crucial part of the Walls for Women team, cheerleaders for Whitney and pals of all of ours.
The community spirit was strong with this project, something that’s sometimes hard to come by in a small town resistant to change. But given that Centerville had zero murals and no public art other than a Minnie Pearl chicken wire bust, which was just recently moved from the courthouse lawn to an out-of-town bluff, I think residents were ready for something to happen.
A huge thanks to the Tennessee Arts Commission, whose creative placemaking grant fueled by the specialty license plate program enabled us to do more art in rural areas; to Sunbelt Rentals for supplying the lift for the duration of this project; and to Centerville residents Mandy King, Brad Martin, Trey Ripley, Brenda Brock and the dozens of others who championed this project. If you’re near Centerville, you can check out Punch Bug on 102 S. Public Square in Centerville.
We are so happy we were able to incorporate Whitney’s creativity in the Walls for Women trail and give her her largest canvas she’s been allowed to paint to date—and without restriction! She said it was the first time anyone has told her she can paint whatever she likes, and it almost baffled her at first (what’s the catch?). And if you happen to be passing through Columbia, just 25 minutes down the road, check out Whitney’s art studio, Bristles & Thistles.
Find the other Walls for Women murals here:
- Walls for Women Kicks Off! Here’s Where to Find New Murals in Tennessee
- Hebe’s Mark on McMinnville, Tennessee and the Mural in Her Honor
- How a Mural is Made: The Story of “Wisteria Maiden” in Tullahoma
- Honoring Knoxville’s Place in Suffrage through Art
- The Biggest, Boldest Mural in Maryville, Tennessee
- Whiskey, Women + the Black Lives Matter Mural in Nashville