Decatur Art Trail brings big artistic vision to small city

Decatur mural
One of the murals along the Decatur Art Walk

By KATE COIL

TML Communications Specialist

Leveraging local artists, grant funds, and community partnerships, the town of Decatur has managed to create a local art trail bringing beauty and cheer to locals and visitors.

Laura Smith, city recorder and treasurer for Decatur, said what began as a small project designed to connect town assets has grown into the first phase of a downtown art trail that now includes murals, sidewalks, and a sculpture installation. The genesis of the project was Decatur’s involvement in the Chattanooga-based Lyndhurst Foundation’s Thriving Communities program.

“As we went through this program, it made us think about community resources, what we wanted for the community, and things we could to do enhance it,” Smith said. “We decided to focus on downtown Decatur, which is the block that encircles the Meigs County Courthouse and includes the Decatur Municipal Building. We have a music stage here and have held a summer concert series here for a few years. It inspired us to put more art in the area to make it a more enjoyable place to visit.”

Decatur officials used grand funds from the Lyndhurst Foundation to add two murals to the downtown area, one honoring veterans from the local area on the public library and a second in the style of a vintage postcard on the city’s Masonic Lodge Building. The lodge mural showcases important aspects of local history and culture and is also near the Meigs County Historical Museum. These murals were painted by Athens-based artists Stephanie Burchfield and Donovan Klaaren.

Other funds were used to paint downtown street lights. Grace Blevens, an artist and middle school teacher who lives in Decatur, was chosen as the artist for the utility pole project. She later contributed a lake scene mural to downtown as well.

With the success of these initial projects, Smith said the city then sought and received grant funds from the Tennessee Arts Commission to continue the artistic momentum downtown.

“The Tennessee Arts Commission is always a great resource for us, and we love them,” she said. “They had money to put toward our next project, which was adding onto the murals downtown. We wanted to create the Decatur Art Trail that would connect our downtown area to our Veterans Memorial Park, which is our small city park.”

The sidewalk that connects downtown Decatur to both Veterans Memorial Park and the local middle school then became the newest community canvas. Local high school and college students McKenzie Plank, Sara Plank, and Alisha Paxton painted the new sidewalk art with McKenzie Plank and Sara Plank creating an accompanying Welcome Mural.

“In addition to just wanting to beautify the area, we want people to walk,” Smith said. “We want to be a more walkable community. It’s better for everyone to get out and walk and be more active. We came up with the idea of starting our art trail in downtown and added painting on the sidewalk. We had great local artists to do that for us who had some amazing talent. We gave them a little inspiration that we wanted something bright and fun. They came up with all the art on the sidewalk and painted every few squares of sidewalk then the Welcome Mural.”

With four murals, utility pole art, and sidewalk art, a new sculpture recently installed at Veterans Park has rounded out what Decatur officials are dubbing the “first phase” of the city’s art walk. Knoxville-based artists Katie Dirnabuer and Mike Jewell, who operate the business Stolen Streetlights, came up with the idea of the butterfly sculpture.

“We wanted it to be bright, fun, and family-friendly,” Smith said. “They came up with the idea of this butterfly that can also be a photo opportunity. People can take their photo in front of it. I had no idea what a sculpture would cost or what we could get for our small budget. We had $10,000 and that was it; we didn’t have any money to match it. Our butterfly sculpture is amazing; it’s perfect for our park.”

While the trail wasn’t made overnight, Smith said being open to available opportunities has helped Decatur slowly build something unique.

“We are a small town that has a small budget. We don’t have a lot of money to put toward art, even though we love it. Sometimes the have-tos come before what we like to do. We have to take opportunities as they come with funding.  Looking back and seeing how many stages we went through to create something we can call a trail is amazing. It was important to build relationships with the Thriving Communities program, the Lyndhurst Foundation, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. They saw our passion for wanting to do something in our town. Small things and small changes make a big difference in a town our size.”

As the art trail has grown, Smith said she has also seen an increase in other beautification efforts downtown from businesses investing more in landscaping and the local school’s FFA chapter has both offered to take care of downtown planters and painted those planters to fit in with the arty theme.

“Those partners are amazing in a small town where we all know each other,” Smith said. “Everyone has their own job to do and gets focused on their own area of the world. It’s great to have partnerships where we can all work together for the betterment of everyone.”

Members of the public have also expressed how much they enjoy the trail.

“A lot of our feedback comes from when we post pictures on our town’s Facebook page,” she said. “Everybody loves it and thinks it really adds to the community. They appreciate anything that brightens up the town that we love so much. Small town people have so much pride in where they come from and where they live. Seeing something different beautifying the town makes them proud.”

Smith said public art doesn’t have to be solely the domain of bigger cities and that it is just as important for smaller communities to have public art for citizens to enjoy.

“We completely rely on grants to fund most of our art if not all of it,” Smith said. “Sometimes we get caught up in this is the way something has always been or our town has always looked this way. We sometimes think of art and murals as being a big city thing, but we can have that in Decatur. We are one of the smallest towns around and people love it. I work in downtown and I often see people taking pictures with the mural or at the park in front of the butterfly. You don’t have to go to a big city like Nashville to take a picture at a mural for Instagram. Those of us who live in Decatur can still have a piece of that.”