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CHATTANOOGA. One of the 900 streets in the country named to honor Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is in Chattanooga. A unique public art process that began last year with conversations between the city’s residents and designers is the subject of a new film, America’s Boulevard. The documentary was created by Tyler Jones and Mark Slagle of Nashville with 1504, a multimedia studio that specializes in narrative. The film captures the complex dialogue that came from the site specific commission in the MLK Neighborhood. The design process is well on its way to becoming a national model, and certainly the finished mural commands our attention.

Public Art Chattanooga commissioned Philadelphia mural specialist, Meg Saligman, to lead a team of nearly a dozen Tennessee professional artists to create a mural “to depict the past, present, and future” of the urban neighborhood.

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MLK Mural in progress in August 2015. Photos by Laurie Perry Vaughen.

As Saligman and others began listening to residents— and residents began sharing their stories— it was recognized that the project’s purpose would be to reclaim not merely remember the past of this historic black street, once called Big Nine. The result is the transformation of a big obtuse city-block-of-a-building with a painterly mural— a massive 42,179 square-foot mural— deemed the largest in the nation.

The view and viewpoint of the city changed as “The M.L. King Mural: We Will Not Be Satisfied Until” became, well, deeply satisfying to watch. The artists worked from platforms elevated many stories high, as the city’s bustle never slowed below. Rows of paint buckets, of many colors and hues, lined the downtown sidewalk showing the intricate detail and intention. The blank corporate walls became a drawn grid, an intersection of math and art that was beautiful in its own right, in the anticipation it stirred.

Public Art Chattanooga held community meetings where residents, young and old, had the opportunity to paint a table top scale of the project. People leaned in, some who had never held a paint brush before, some who had never spoken their truth in a public meeting. Slowly the fluid movement of a newspaper delivery boy’s bicycle and swinging satchel replaced a section of the static grid. A story was heard. The newspaper gets tossed. The eye notes a choir member stepping up to sing, to mend a robe. Someone knows her by name. A pulley from another century then moves our attention around the corner and up and up. A man opens a book. A child studies a difficult word. A heron eyes a fish in the river. A woman dances with Chattanooga-born Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. We are, after all, in her old neighborhood. Smith, like all the figures represented, comes to life. The feel of energy and fluid movement from the collage of paintings is palpable. This is not a one-dimensional mural, but a masterpiece.

The mural can be viewed at 300 East Martin Luther King Boulevard in downtown Chattanooga. When you are in the city, go see this new Tennessee landmark. If you are in town for the Riverbend Festival, note that the Bessie Smith Strut will offer blues and barbeque in the historic MLK neighborhood on Monday, June 13.

We encourage you to watch the film Jones and Slagle offer us as a compelling reminder that art and design can give voice and vision. We are pleased to share America’s Boulevard.

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