Arts and Culture

Louisville artist Ashley Cathey says it can be unbelievably hard to get a mural on a wall. Even for someone with a lot of experience doing it. 

Last year, it felt like things might change.

“2020 was really fighting for us to take up space, and that was in galleries, and that was on walls and on the streets,” Cathey said. “Anyway that Black artists and artists of color could take up space, I was there trying to push it.” 

Cathey, who is Black, said Black artists should have had a prominent platform to create work responding to the racial justice protests and police killings of Black people

“We’re fighting for our Black lives,” she continued. “Louisville, this my hometown, and Breonna Taylor was taken and killed. We needed to speak on this, and we were not able to.” 

She became frustrated as she watched murals go up around the city; murals featuring Black faces or Black trauma, but often not done by Black artists. 

This was traumatizing for her, and it led her to launch the Healing Walls Project

The effort will support Black and Indigenous artists and creatives of color in making their own public art opportunities in their own cities. 

In Louisville, Healing Walls hosts an interactive and immersive guided art show in downtown Louisville Friday and Saturday called “Spark 2 Streets!” 

Admission is donation based and COVID-19 restrictions will be in place; you’ll also need to reserve a spot ahead of time. It will feature local artists including: Chip Calloway, Tomisha Lovely-Allen, Desmone Stepp, Norman Spencer, Arte Chambers, Red Biddix, Dionte Tyler, Aliyah Gant, Mandi Mudd, Kenyatta Bosman and Brandon “Easy” Wickliffe.

‘Access To Knowledge’

Healing Walls is ultimately a mentorship program, pairing BIPOC artists with mentor artists who already have established careers in public art and mural work, and therefore, have some level of status and privilege in those worlds.

Cathey said the mentees are “just as amazing, just as incredible, just as talented” as other artists getting public art and mural commissions, but they just need “access to the knowledge.”

“If you don’t know how to start, then how can you finish?”

Louisville digital artist Chip Calloway, also known as Mad Moon Vybe, has wanted to add murals to his portfolio.

“I never had the opportunity,” he said. “Never knew any muralists, and the muralists I did know, they were really established and no one really wanted to take the time to show you or hands-on teach you.”

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Louisville digital artist Chip Calloway learns a new mural technique on Oct. 9, 2020. He says he hasn’t painted in a number of paints because he has young kids and, “and then didn’t want them to eat [paint]. So this is a welcoming back into the painting world.”

That’s why he signed up for the project.

As a participant, he’ll learn skills such as: how to scale up a design to go on a building or wall; how to navigate red tape, i.e. obtaining permits or licenses and access to walls; and safety, because when making a mural, one often has to use scaffolding or a motorized lift. 

Calloway has been frustrated by the lack of representation in Louisville’s public art collection and murals. He grew even more frustrated over the summer, when he and other Black artists “met a lot of ‘no’s’” as they tried to put up work around Louisville. 

“I wanted to get involved in something in my city to show there’s more than just white muralists, and there’s more diversity when it comes to style of art in the city,” he said.

Mentoring Doesn’t End When The Mural Does

“It’s not just a mural on a wall,” Healing Walls chief administrative officer and writer Valentina Ashurova said.

The “gatekeeping,” or status quo of who decides who gets to create public art, is often what holds people back, Ashurova continued. And the Healing Walls team hopes to flip that on its head.

“How can we better represent the artist and then help them feel empowered to be able to go out on their own into the art world and not feel as intimidated or pressured, and be able to represent themselves,” she said. “It’s really taking ownership of that.”

They want to set artists up for the long run by helping them understand the business side as well. That’s why there will be relationship-building and follow-up work after the mural is completed, Michelle Johnson, a music artist, longtime friend of Cathey’s and Healing Walls’ CFO, said.

“Them being able to attend workshops afterward, teaching them about the business, about how they are a business entity, making money, being able to fund their work… is really important to Healing Walls as well,” Johnson said. 

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Louisville artist Brandon “Easy” Wickliffe, who will participate in the Healing Walls Project, says he’s been interested in learning mural work because it’s art that people that’s hard to ignore. He’s excited to work with other artists because “you can learn more expounding on your knowledge, instead of just standing in your own lane.”

Ashley Cathey only recently realized how impactful that relationship can be when she mentored a young muralist of color.  

“I didn’t have a person to guide me…  a person of color that knew my struggle, that understood our lack of representation… and also understood that sometimes we’re silent because we don’t know how to speak, we don’t know how to get the artwork out there,” Cathey said. 

She hopes that the Healing Walls Project will be therapeutic and empower people to control their own narratives. 

“Public art changes so much in the community,” she said. “When we allow the people of that community and people of color to be a part of that process, then we are doing something powerful.” 

The program has already held workshops and created murals in St. Louis, and the first mural cycle in Louisville is slated for mid-April, Cathey said. 

After getting off the ground here, they plan to expand to Atlanta, Tampa and New Mexico.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.