Every time Nick Morris rode down US 23 in Alto with his family, he’d see a line of old, broken down school buses — a graveyard, you might say — just off the road that intrigued him.
Morris eventually moved away from Habersham County and traveled from city to city as an artist painting murals and creating other commissioned works.
But something always brought his mind back to Habersham County and the line of busted buses seen from the blacktop of US 23. Eight years ago, it finally got the better of him — Morris went back to those buses and asked the owner of the junkyard they surrounded if he could paint them.
“I just asked if they’d like to try and experiment with some kind of really weird project where I bring in friends and help give them a place to paint, but also help make something look nice in the area,” Morris said. “Around here, you have to make your own fun … I just want young people to realize, you don’t have to live in a city to participate in art or whatever.
“There’s really cool stuff happening right here out in the country.”
Luckily for Morris, the owner of the junkyard was up for it. And just like that, Alonzo Wade Auto Parts Service became the home of what is now known as the School Bus Graveyard, and artists have been coming out once a year to display their art on the sides of buses along the highway ever since.
“I thought it’d be cool, and it’s escalated from there,” said Walter Wade. He inherited the junk yard with his brother from their father, who died three years ago. “It’s fantastic. People come from all over to see this.”
And artists travel to paint there, too, some who know the place through Morris and others who have discovered it on their own. There were about 20 artists at the School Bus Graveyard on Tuesday, Nov. 20, painting the buses as early as 6 a.m.
Morris said that’s when he and his wife, Amanda, who drove from Denver where they now live, got there to start painting.
“I’m just really into it,” Nick Morris said. “It’s just kind of having fun and meeting some other artists, watching how other people work, and getting to know people.”
Painting has always been a part of Morris’ life. For as long as he can remember, he’s been painting something — starting with the walls in his bedroom.
Morris said his father had bad knees, so he wasn't able to make it up the stairs to Morris’ room on the second level of their home when he was young.
“I just started painting the walls for fun, and before I knew it, I had painted my whole room into a mural,” Morris said. “I ended up repainting my room like 10 times as a child, just from wall to wall, from the ceiling to the floor, I just did it all.”
He said from there, it “snowballed.” He kept finding walls, kept painting and eventually started painting murals on private walls at homes, on backyard fences and even on city walls at festivals like CRUSH WALLS in Denver.
Like the School Bus Graveyard, Morris’ art is always changing. It’s never the same but always carries his personality.
“It’s fine lines and big teeth,” Morris said of his mural art. “I’ve got this little character I do, I’ve been doing him since I was like 10, so he’s been around a while … and then I do these really thin lines to make up an image, but that stuff is always changing. What I’m doing now is not what I was doing 10 years ago.”
Peter Loose was there for his third time, adding claws to an alligator inspired by Clyde, a “good friend” of Loose’s who lives near his home in Hull, Georgia.
Clyde also happens to be a 13-foot-2-inch alligator, who has inhabited a pond in Hull for more than 20 years.
So now, Clyde is on the side of one of those buses, with skeletons surrounding him.
Although he said he doesn’t plan much when he paints, he plans on making it out to the School Bus Graveyard every year as long as he’s welcome.
“It's such a stupid thing to do, paint a bus,” said Loose, a full-time artist out of Hull. “But it’s really a way to just clear your head and not think too hard. And it makes everybody laugh, too. There's a lot of people who enjoy this place.”
Kristin Davis uses art in the same way: To clear her mind.
“I’ve suffered from depression,” said Davis, an artist and dog groomer from Demorest. “It’s just something I’ve always struggled with, and art has always been a way for me to get out those emotions and thoughts and translate it to something useful and beautiful.”
Even though she’s seen the School Bus Graveyard for years, she said she’s always been intimidated at the thought of painting a mural and felt like she’d mess it up.
But this year, Davis decided to take it on.
She turned up at 8:30 a.m. to paint a version of the Blue Ridge Mountains that’s unique to her.
Painting scenes like her mountains — with a sun in the middle, and circles radiating from it as rays of light — has “been therapy for me more than anything, for years.”
A few buses down from Davis, slowly covering black snakes with yellow stripes and yellow eyes that had been painted by Loose last year, was Amanda Morris, perched on a step ladder to reach the colorful neck of her hummingbird. The bus, unlike many others in the School Bus Graveyard, was painted yellow — offering a sharp contrast to the green, red and blue of the hummingbird and the pink of the flower in which it had buried its beak.
She said the focus of her paintings has evolved from huge bugs and giant insects to large birds.
“There is nothing like painting on a school bus,” Morris said. “You just get so involved, and there’s so much texture. And I feel like it’s really exciting to transform things that are junk or mundane into something really exciting.”
And that’s why Nick Morris continues to do it, too: The School Bus Graveyard is something for everyone to enjoy. The school buses, originally meant to keep people out of the junkyard, have turned into something much more.
“It’s super cool because everybody gets to do what they want,” Morris said. “And it’s kind of like a proving ground, to see what everybody likes. It’s my favorite place to paint and I've painted all over the country all up and down the West Coast … The whole mission is to paint, paint and paint every day.”