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Muralist Shaun LaRose sounds almost like an urban designer as he describes the mural he's working on. It covers the wall of a former bank building at the intersection of Glass Street and N. Chamberlain Ave., the center of an East Chattanooga neighborhood that's seen better days.
"It's been proven in other cities that this has worked," said LaRose. "The concept is to put in something visually stunning at a high aesthetic level of quality and technical excellence. The economics will rise as you put beautiful work there. It tends to make people think differently about the neighborhood. It also develops a huge sense of ownership for the local community and residents. It's remarkable to see the process as we've been doing this."
Urban revitalization can take many forms. Glass House Collective is investing in art as the sparkplug for a community revitalization. Last year, the nonprofit agency received a $300,000 grant from ArtPlace, a national collaboration of foundations, banks and federal agencies. This mural is one of the artistic interventions funded by the grant.
The mural's images are mostly complete, and even before all the details are in it's an amazing piece of visual storytelling, a vibrant and hopeful tale that's intended as a statement of faith in a place that needs some help.
LaRose's canvas is mostly two stories tall, roughly 30 by 40 feet, with an attached one-story building adding another 40 feet in length. The images, developed with input from the community, begin on the left with a young girl blowing seeds from a puffy dandelion, symbolizing rebirth. Behind her are red poppies, symbolizing dreams.
"She is spreading these seeds of dreams, hope and rebirth to an area of town that used to be a cultural hub and has really declined," said LaRose. "She's dreaming of the future and spreading that hope forward."
Next to her is a young boy reading a book, representing education. When I spoke to LaRose, he was about to paint birds flying out of the book, to circle around the mural's central figure, a matriarch knitting bolts of luminous red and blue fabric.
"We wanted to communicate intergenerational cooperation," said LaRose. "She's knitting this tapestry of care that she's passing off to the future."
Those fabrics billow out toward another young girl, where they transform into the chalk she is using to draw new art.
"That figure represents the future and love, taking what's from the past and cultivating it into a brighter future," said LaRose, who used a girl from the neighborhood as a model. "She's taking this tapestry of empowerment and values, and she's going to recreate it. She's drawing with it."
The figures, which are LaRose's work, are in a classical, figurative style. The mural even continues in paint the classical facade of the former bank building's street side, to the left of the mural. Three painted arches echo those of the bank front, but the facade begins to break apart in the mural.
"We wanted to create some of that optical illusion, that as you come down the street the building naturally moves into the mural," said LaRose. "We're messing with this realistic and classical but fictitious space. It's magic realism."
A non-figurative background, just beginning to show in places, will be executed in a more urban, graffiti-influenced style by Rondell Crier.
LaRose is passionate about passing the torch to the next generation, both the youth of Glass Street and the intern muralists he is helping to train.
"The kids here are amazing, with huge potential for the future," he said. "We've got poets, we've got artists, we've got craftsmen. In an area most people consider depressed and on the decline, these kids show a bright future."
He secured an additional grant from the American division of the British Royal Society of the Arts to pay interns Emma Flynn and Myles Freeman to work with him for a year, helping with this project, creating a second mural themselves on Glass Street, and training to paint another large mural with him somewhere else in Chattanooga, perhaps downtown.
"There's a lot of demand suddenly for murals, and we've been working to create that demand for years, a lot of us have been," he said. "In the long run I'd like to develop a talent pool here. I hope people like Myles and Emma become ten times the muralists I've ever been so that we can have better work here."
LaRose believes murals have the ability to serve the community in unique ways.
"Murals aren't really about the artists, they're about the community," he said. "We may sign them somewhere but they're really not about us. That's a good role for an artist, trying to offer something of value and beauty to your community. Its a whole lot better than being in this narcissistic world of trying to 'make it' as an artist."
Glass House Collective is planning an unveiling party for the mural on Friday, Aug. 16 at 6 p.m. For more information, visit glasshousecollective.org.