By Lucas Johnson – TSU News Service
Courtesy of National Public Radio
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In a North Nashville yard, artists have transformed concrete walls into canvases by painting a dozen large-scale murals. It’s at 817 18th Avenue North, in what owner A.J. Sankari says used to be a wheel and rubber factory. The man behind it is Jay Jenkins, an art student from TSU.
On one wall, you see a painting of a woman who is reading from a big book, while formulas and equations float through the cosmos above her. On another, a kid lifts up his shirt, revealing a bull’s eye on his chest.
Jenkins grew up in the neighborhood. He works part-time at Home Depot, collecting carts from the parking lot. But he says he’s usually preoccupied with one thing: art.
“I mean art is a lifestyle so it’s the only thing on my mind,” Jenkins says. “When I’m driving, I’m thinking about art. When I’m in class, I’m thinking about art. When I’m pushing carts, I’m thinking about art. Besides my family, it’s the only thing I think about.”
Graffiti artist Arjae signs his Norf Wall Fest mural. CREDIT ERICA CICCARONE
Jenkins is lean and tall with short dreadlocks and a big smile. Even when he says he’s stressed out, he appears relaxed and self-assured. He’s popular among his professors and classmates at TSU, but his biggest fan is his grandma, Lovie Jenkins.
She has Jenkins’s paintings hanging in every room of her house, and even hangs up paintings that bother her. In one six-foot tall painting, a guy has caution tape wrapped around his face that’s covered in words you usually don’t want your grandma to see. But she still displayed it right outside the kitchen.
Jenkins says he didn’t think about art until high school, when he saw a friend drawing graffiti in a notebook. “I asked him can he teach me how to do that, and eventually he did show me and took me out painting. I was drawing before that, but once I started doing graffiti, it became a passion.”
His paintings are big, complex, influenced by jazz and surrealism.
Growing up, Jenkins watched North Nashville sidewalks crack and buildings fall into disrepair, while other parts of the city got bigger and better. But he also knows his neighborhood has something that others don’t: four historical black colleges.
He felt driven to harness the talent coming out of these schools, so he convinced Sankari to let him transform the walls in his lot into canvases for Norf Wall Fest. That’s Norf with an “F” because he says, “Everybody from North Nashville says ‘norf’ with an ‘F’ at the end of it.”
He turned to his mentor Thaxton Waters, who runs a gallery on Jefferson Street called Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge and Gallery. It’s filled with antique furniture and paintings by local Black artists.
“When he came to me with this idea, I was like man, this is beautiful because anytime we have the opportunity to heighten the aesthetic value of our neighborhood, we have to jump on that,” Waters says. “What was just him spitting out ideas is growing and has morphed into a whole ‘nother Frankenstein, so I love it.”
Waters helped Jenkins select seasoned graffiti artists who could handle the huge concrete canvases. They looked for work that addressed race, class, and community, issues central to the neighborhood.
In one mural by an artist who goes by Arjae, a nude Black woman sits among clouds at sunset, her back to the viewer, with the words “Not an object” written below her.
All this comes on the heels of *Metro Nashville Arts Commission’s recent report that highlights how people of color have been excluded from the arts. But this is not news to Jenkins’s mentor, Waters, who views his gallery and the surrounding North Nashville artistic neighborhood as a way around arts institutions.
“When I went through all the institutions and went through the art history books, I just didn’t see things that reflected me. That sends a message to the viewer: Why am I not important?” Waters says.
This feeling — to be visible, to make a mark, to assert that you exist — that’s why graffiti started, and it’s what drives Jenkins.
“I’ve got these worlds in my head that I get to show people,” Jenkins says. “I’m not really good at explaining things. My grandma says I’m quiet. I don’t really talk much, so I talk through my art.”