by Ray Rico
If you’ve noticed many of the murals and artwork across the city, chances are you’re seeing the beauty brought to you by an artistic vision for Memphis, Karen Golightly. Over the past several years, she has helped organize and beautify the city.
Where did the idea of Paint Memphis come from?
I was a street art photographer for many years, and traveled all over the world capturing street art in much the same way that people capture sunsets. Both are temporal, they will disappear, but you want to remember the moment, the colors, the images that stand out to you. So, I had lots of opportunities elsewhere to see street art, but not much in Memphis.
At that time, over 12 years ago, there were very few public murals or even illegal street art in town. So, at first, it was the idea that I was sneaking into abandoned buildings or searching in ditches and around flood walls to try to find these amazing works that graffiti writers and street artists were painting. There were all of these masterpieces hidden from everyone, and I wanted to find a way that everyone in Memphis, regardless of their ethnicity, geographic location, or socio-economic group could see art.
They might have been intimidated to go to a museum or a gallery, or they may not have considered it an option, but with Paint Memphis, they could experience all kinds of art. Some of it is traditional graffiti, other pieces are murals, and some are a combination of the two. So I partnered with Brandon Marshall, who was the creative brains behind the venture. And we didn’t know what we were getting into, but we knew it was going to be super cool and a lot of work. All of that was true and continues to be true.
What inspires you to create visually appealing murals in Memphis?
I sort of answered this before, but I want everyone in Memphis and even in the US to have free access to amazing art. I also want to change the concept of graffiti and street art as a sign of blight to an embodiment of beauty. I always think about the way people see the world around them. It’s a matter of shifting paradigms. If you can get someone to consider street art as beautiful, then they may want to paint the grey walls that exists around them. And if they are looking around at their neighborhood, they might see other ways that “signs of blight” can be transformed. Maybe it’s a vacant lot that’s been used as a dumping ground, which can be converted into a garden. Maybe it’ an abandoned school that can become housing. There’s a fine line between making a neighborhood safer and more appealing through public art and gentrification, which is something that Paint Memphis and I consider every time we enter a new space. But with so many grey walls in Memphis, we want to find a way to add some color to other people’s lives.
What sort of obstacles have you faced by trying to beautify Memphis? How did you overcome it?
There was, of course, the zombie incident, but even before that, there had been a reticence against public murals in Memphis. It’s odd to me, because I don’t think artists should be censored. Sure, there are some guidelines that should be in place, which we have, but that can be handled with private property owners as well as anything painted on city property. I have been trying to get the City of Memphis to let Paint Memphis paint the west side of the Mississippi River flood wall for ten years. It’s just a grey wall with numbers on it. It gets tagged with graffiti regularly. But convincing them to let go of this big grey wall seems impossible. But Memphis is a bit slower to come around to some ideas than other cities. We get there; it just takes time. On the other hand, Memphis is also a place where one person can make a huge difference (look at Tommy Pacello). It’s a place where if you can dream it, you can eventually make it happen. But definitely takes some time. So, we keep working, finding big walls that need revamping. And we are getting there, slowly but surely.
Who is your Shero?
This one is a hard question, as I have so many female friends who are sheroes of their own lives. But I think my mom is likely my shero. She was an orphan and grew up in a foster home. She married my father young and they are still very much in love with each other. And though she often comes up with completely untrue “facts” that we call “Mamieisms,” as her name is Mamie, she’s possibly the kindest person I’ve ever known. Just recently, at 80, she survived two major back surgeries and COVID. But when I was little, she told me something that has always stuck with me: “In your life, you may feel like you don’t fit in or belong.” Of course, I did, even when she said that to me. “Not everyone feels that way, but you will. And it’s not because there’s anything wrong with you. It’s because you’re special. And not everyone gets your kind of special.” I don’t really think I’m all that special, but when people accuse you of being a devil worshipper in a City Council meeting, because an artist painted a zombie, remembering those words helped.
Tell us about your passion for artwork and where that stems from.
I have always been an avid reader and writer, but I start with an image or a scene. So I had grown up on movies, mostly scary movies, like Rosemary’s Baby, The Blob, The Birds, and It’s Alive. The images in these movies both scared and thrilled me as a kid. Then, with traveling, I kept seeing how people took images from movies, TV, and everyday life to create these messages about themselves or for other people.
Sometimes it would be obvious, or at times, it might be buried. I also worked for Carol DeForest for over 10 years in the 90’s, and she introduced me to art in Memphis. I not only worked in her ceramic dinnerware studio, but she connected me with tons of local and national artists and she encouraged all of us who worked at her studio to go to every single gallery opening that we would find. None of us had any money, so it was great to get out, see amazing art, have a free snack or glass of wine, and meet more artists. And though I painted for her, helped her install many public art pieces, I never considered myself a visual artist. I did know what I liked and could explain why fairly well, but I didn’t create like “real” artists did.
I also taught at Memphis College of Art and, essentially, was around all kinds of artists from the early 90’s. Art wasn’t really something that I grew up with, but I married an art/graphic designer, spent a good deal of time at writers/artists colonies, and I thought that artists were some of the most interesting, amazing people I had ever met. Photography and curating seem to be my strengths, and writing grants, which is really helpful when directing a nonprofit.
How do you work with artists to bring them to Memphis and share their talent?
We do a call for artists each year through social media and emails. We have at least half local artists as well, as we want to showcase the amazing talent we have here as well as bring in inspiration from around the world. So, people send in three images (usually three) and we have a committee of board members and art/neighborhood folks from Memphis who rank that artists. It’s a blind submission process, so the committee focuses on the quality of the work, not the reputation of the artist. We then have several youth organizations and younger artists, who we accept sort of separately. They often have never painted murals, so we give them the chance to give it a try. That’s been an incredibly rewarding experience.
So, after the selection process, we give the artists their spaces and they order paint through us, and we do our best to give them the supplies they need to create super cool art.
Do you have any favorites?
For Paint Memphis 2020, I love the two memorial murals to two of my dear friends who passed away: Eric Janssen and Nels. Eric was a photographer here in Memphis and founder of Grind City Meet. He was one of my dear friends, and the artist, Davey Croc, from Boston, found an interview in which I mentioned Eric, then did some research on his own, and completely surprised me. He said, “I found this guy that has never had a mural done, but he did so much for Memphis and for you.” All of that was true, but the surprise of it floored me. Eric died tragically in a fall three years ago, strangely on the day that Dave Croc found that interview. The Nels mural on North Second Street, was done by Curtis Glover. Nels was a muralist and graffiti writer, who was killed in a hit and run accident this last summer. Without ever being asked, he helped me with so much event organization during the last three years of Paint Memphis. Both of these men will be greatly missed.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Dustin Spagnola’s zombie mural on Lamar Avenue from 2018. It’s a sore subject with the City of Memphis, and some of the neighbors there, but it got our city talking about public art. Memphis is a city that talks about sports, politics, race, and food a lot. But there isn’t much talk about art. So, despite some of the negativity, there was a lot of talk about community development, gentrification, and art.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
The best piece of advice was from my dad. He was a coach for the better part of his life, and he always said, “If you don’t shoot, you’ll never score.” So, I just keep shooting. I miss a lot, but every now and then, I actually get one in.
Which of your friends are you proudest of? Why?
This is hard, because I have a ton of really amazing friends, who have gone through a lot and succeeded. They have overcome obstacles like I cannot even imagine. But I think I’m most proud of my friend, Kirsten Sandlin. She’s my neighbor and friend, and possibly my partner
(in crime) for life. She’s this tiny, 100lb woman with six kids, but she can get an astounding number of things done with very little money. She’s been through quite a bit, even since I met her eight years ago. We call her “The Bulldog” on our soccer team, because she will go up against anybody, no matter how skilled they are or how big they are. She’s sort of the David in the David and Goliath story. And she doesn’t always succeed. But she gets back up and keeps on trying.
What advice do you have for young women interested in art?
Take chances. Do what you love and keep trying all sorts of different things. You’ll find something that you really want to pursue, and then you might want to add something else onto it. Do it. Why not? You have only one life. Make it count. Live a great story.
You owe that to yourself.
How can folks learn more about Paint Memphis and any events or calls for artists?
They can check out our website (paintmemphis.org) or our Facebook or Instagram pages (Paint Memphis on FB and PaintMemphis123 on IG).
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’m so honored to be considered a shero, and to be part of Focus Mid-South. You share stories that people in the Mid-South need to hear. You give voice to the often overlooked or ignored. I’m not sure that there’s a name for a written word that does that, but “s/hero” fits for Focus Mid-South too.