Over the course of several days, local artists, children and art faculty and students from the University of North Georgia have breathed new life behind the Midtown Villages at Melrose.
With the stroke of their brushes, familiar faces of prominent Gainesville figures have begun to take shape, now forever gazing upon those who live in the public housing apartments.
Those depicted in the mural include Faye Bush, civil rights activist and leader of the Newtown Florist Club for many decades; Johnny Vardeman, retired editor of The Times who started his role in the newspaper during the ‘50s and still writes a weekly column; Beulah Rucker, a pioneer of education who established a school in Gainesville for African American children in the early 1900s; Dr. Emmett Ethridge “E.E.” Butler, the first Black physician to practice medicine in Hall County; Gene “Mr. B” Beckstein, who founded the food and homeless shelter, Good News at Noon, in 1987; and Norma Hernandez, president of the Northeast Georgia Latino Chamber of Commerce who helped dispatch vital information to the local Hispanic community during the pandemic.
Jim Chapman, special projects coordinator with Gainesville Housing Authority, said he designed the piece with the intent of inspiring the children who live in the area.
“The hard part is for them to dream beyond public housing,” Chapman said. “Bringing the arts in, we’re creating a culture of creativity. And, we say dream big, dream crazy big.”
Chapman said the Public Arts in Public Affordable Housing program is overseeing the project and coordinating with UNG’s visual art department and community members to have it finished by early next week.
Imelda Gonzales Lucas, a 13-year-old who lives in Midtown Villages, has worked on the mural with her 9-year-old brother over the past week. Imelda said she wants to become an artist when she grows up and plans to continue producing public art behind her neighborhood with other volunteers.
“I like all the bright colors and the creativity they have put into this painting,” she said.
Below each prominent leader in the mural, people can read a blurb about their contributions to Gainesville. Chapman describes the public piece as a “walk-through history lesson” that meshes different artistic styles and colors like “a patchwork quilt.”
“I didn’t know about Faye Bush, but now I do,” Nancy Barbosa said as she painted the civil rights activist. “We’re learning about different people who help the community, and this is one way to tell them (residents) who they are.”
Elizabeth Sherman, UNG visual arts student, said she hopes the mural will embolden local kids to pursue a bright future.
“It gives them a chance to grow and explore and find out more about themselves,” she said. “Just being a part of that, that’s amazing to me.”
Peyton Holley, UNG visual arts student, said if the mural positively affects one person, then it has done its job.
“Society without art is no society at all,” she said. “I think art is such an integral part of life. I think to be able to volunteer and work on this is pretty big, and to know that it’ll have some kind of impact on others.”