Brooks Museum's mural project takes classic art to the streets of Memphis

By Published: November 12, 2018 8:54 PM CT

When Tonya Dyson was little, she recalls, grandmothers were the protectors of the neighborhood. They would be there when the school bus pulled up at the end of the day and would keep a watchful eye until suppertime, making sure all the little ones were safe and cared for.

So, she felt a sigh of relief when French artist Julien de Casabianca pasted up a detail from Memphis painter Carroll Cloar’s 1971 work “The Wedding Party” — the figure of a diminutive but stern older African-American woman, whose matronly spectacles barely disguise an eagle-eyed, no-nonsense stare — at 945 E. McLemore Ave. in Soulsville, just down College Street from where Dyson works at the Memphis Slim House.

“That’s a high-traffic area that a lot of kids go by between us, the Stax Music Academy, and Memphis Rox,” she said. “And the Soulsville Charter School is nearby, and the park is on that side of the street. So, you have tons of kids coming back and forth, and people don’t really adhere to the speed limits and school crossing signs. Fortunately, we haven’t had any incidents, but still when they were putting up this grandma, I thought of it like, OK, she can keep an eye on them.”

The Soulsville grandma is one of 21 “characters” pulled from larger works in the permanent collection of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art that have been re-created on the sides of buildings across the city as part of the latest installment in the museum’s “Brooks Outside” series. The series started as an experiment two years ago during the Brooks centennial anniversary and has since become an annual linchpin of the museum’s programming.

The first Brooks Outside was “the RedBall Project,” the creation of New York artist Kurt Perschke that dotted the landscape in Midtown and Downtown Memphis with whimsical, giant inflatable spheres. Other entries in the series have been “Intrude,” Australian artist Amanda Parer’s installation of five giant, inflatable rabbits on the grounds of the Brooks, and a series of public murals by the Rhode Island collective Tape Art.

“The mission of Brooks Outside is to take the museum beyond its walls into the community in a kind of energetic, intensive, and short-term period of time,” said Brooks director Emily Ballew Neff, emphasizing the ephemeral nature of all Brooks Outside projects.

From the beginning, however, “Outings,” this new entry in the Brooks Outside series has been different.

The staff of the Brooks has been familiar with de Casabianca’s work for some time. Known as the “Robin Hood of street art,” he has made an international reputation wallpapering buildings in more than 50 cities around the world with often-times multi-story murals. His public art works, which often deliberately target distressed neighborhoods far from the cultural centers of town, have been seen in Hanoi, Moscow and Mumbai.

In that sense – a nationally or internationally respected artist bringing a road-tested vision to Memphis – “Outings” is like the projects that preceded it. But in many ways, it represents a new era in the relationship between the city and its (and the state’s) oldest and largest art museum, a uniquely Memphis exhibit that does more than anything before to break down the barriers between the Brooks and the community it serves or, as even some fans might point out, underserves.

“Museums are always in rich area. I wanted just to bring back this beauty to poor areas,” said de Casabianca of the philosophy behind his work. “I paste where people need. And rich people have already all [the art they need]. In distressed areas, there is still enchantment. They can feel deeply the artistic proposition you do.”

Bringing de Casabianca’s vision of Brooks collection to the streets of Memphis was an endeavor more than a year in the making. It began with project manager Kathy Dumlao, the Brooks’ director of education and interpretation, identifying properties around time that could serve as suitable “canvases” for de Casabianca. Once identified, then began the long process of negotiating with often suspicious property owners and other stakeholders.

Meanwhile, the Brooks also assembled a committee of 15 community representatives to select the “characters,” as de Casabianca calls the figures. The committee, which included artists, arts professional, business owners, residents, and community leaders, toured the museum with de Casabianca and tried to find works that reflected the whole community, something that was not easy to accomplish.

“I will note that the Brooks needs way more Black art than what it does have,” said Dyson, who as marketing and program manager at the Slim House, represented the Soulsville neighborhood. “That was a thing that was glaringly obvious.”

The Brooks’ dearth of contemporary African-American art meant the final list of works selected leaned heavily on the late Carroll Cloar, the renowned regionalist whose scenes of Memphis and Delta life in the early part of last century, while depicting African-Americans, don’t necessarily resonate with 21st-century sensibilities. None of the artists represented in the “Outings” project are Black.  Four of Cloar’s paintings are on the final list, along with works by 19th-century New England watercolorist Winslow Homer and Italian Renaissance master Pellegrino di Mariano Rossini, among others.

Once selected, the characters were printed out at the Memphis College of Art and in Paris, and at the end of September de Casabianca returned to town and began plastering the images like wallpaper to the sides of the chosen buildings. Ranging from East Memphis to Downtown, Frayser to South Memphis, 18 of the images are discreet – life-size or smaller – and easy to glance over if you are not looking. Three others are what the Brooks calls “monumentals,” figures measuring several stories that are imposing on the landscape. One of these in the South Main Arts District features another detail from “The Wedding Party,” a quartet of African-American girls, who in the complete work are standing just in front of the grandma who watches over Soulsville. Another, pulled from 19th-century French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau “At the Foot of the Cliff,” plastered on the side of an empty warehouse at 62 E.H. Crump Boulevard with the building’s fire escape artfully cutting into the image, has become “Outings” defining image.

“I have heard that truck drivers coming across the old bridge there are pulling over into the parking lot there to look at it,” said Neff. “There’s no bigger sign of a success than that.”

For Memphis muralist Jamond Bullock, who served on the selection committee and helped de Casabianca install the final images, “Outings” is confirmation of what local artists have already been doing. Bullock, through his many public work commissions as well as in his role as artist-in-residence at Caritas Village in Binghamton where one of the “Outings” installations can be found on Broad Street, has been working for years to bridge gaps between artists and the community.

“Memphis is becoming a happening art town,” said Bullock, who is currently curating the second edition of “Young, Gifted & Dope” art show opening Nov. 19 at 639 Marshall Ave. as well as working on projects in such traditionally underserved areas as Frayser and Orange Mound. “But there are still too many people who never get to experience up close or in the course of the daily lives.”

In Soulsville, where the “Outings” building, a former barber shop and bakery, still bears traces of past public art attempts, momentum seems to be building behind the incredible growth the area has seen in recent years. Another Bullock mural graces the nearby Slim House and community leaders have begun to talk about the ways public art can drive the area’s already considerable tourism draw.

By then, the grandma on McLemore may be long gone. Like the other Brooks Outside projects, “Outings” was always meant to be ephemeral. The installation on the University of Memphis Art Building, the spectral “Autumn Bower” by Arthur Bowen Davies, was by agreement scheduled to come down after 60 days, in late November. “River Scene” by Henri Harpignies, which can be seen on the side of Newby's, will come down in November as well.  The others are intended to slowly fray and decay under the elements, perhaps even enhancing their beauty and otherworldliness. However, a few of the project’s property owners have expressed interest in somehow preserving the works – some sort of thin, clear, shellac-like coating could be used – beyond de Casabianca’s intent.

“I saw a woman with her daughter on the road to school stopped the car in front the monumental of the little girls I did in Memphis, and they were crying together,” said de Casabianca of his experiences here. “It's on their everyday road. We created together an enchantment; me by pasting a giant, emotional piece of art, and this woman and her daughter because of the emotional life in their eyes.” For Neff, the greatest accomplishment may be that these kinds of conversations are happening but on a much larger scale than ever before, with people across the city joining the discussion.

“The whole point about these kinds of projects is the ways in which they build communities. The committee members. The building owners. This has allowed us to forge new partnerships and collaborations,” said Neff, noting the museum will need all the connections it can get as it raises money for a planned move to a new Downtown location. “And because we’ve forged that connection with the community, we are at the point that the community is beginning to ask itself, oh, I wonder what the Brooks is going to do next? Because I think we have built confidence in the community that they can trust that we are is going to do something that will be a positive experience for all Memphians.”

This story originally appeared at High Ground News, Memphis’ source for neighborhood reporting. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Soulsville Memphis Slim House Stax Music Academy Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

Mark Jordan

Mark Jordan is a freelance writer for High Ground News.

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