A mural in West Montgomery is welcoming visitors with a bright, bold interpretation of some pivotal Montgomery moments, but it’s also spurring economic development in the areas surrounding it.
During visits to other cities around the country over the last few years, Montgomery artist Kevin King had seen murals that greeted visitors to these various locations. “I noticed we didn’t have anything like that in the city of Montgomery,” King said. This desire to provide an artistic sense of welcome was one of the thoughts underlying the creation of a public mural at The King’s Canvas, his nonprofit gallery and art studio on Oak Street.
King commissioned Winfred Hawkins, who brought in Nathaniel Allen, and the three artists worked together to paint an exterior wall image that offers a “Welcome to West Side Montgomery” and reflects the location’s history along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. “At the bottom of it, it tells the story of the Selma to Montgomery march — kind of silhouette, artistic style,” King said.
Creative placemaking is the other thought behind the mural, especially the role this concept can play in economic development. As King learned about creative placemaking in recent years, he said, “I realized if you have public art anywhere, if you have murals anywhere, and if you construct it, people will literally gravitate towards it because we’re living in a society where people love taking pictures and videos.”
King added, “I’m trying to get people to come to our community, and I felt one of the best ways for us to do that was to create artwork that would be appealing that would draw people to our community to engage with the art.” This mural in particular gives tourists interested in the Selma to Montgomery march a reason to make a stop in the area. After engaging with the art, visitors will hopefully patronize local businesses—generating economic impact.
As the benefits have extended to area businesses, including a nearby restaurant, and to artists that are able to sell their artwork, King said other businesses are preparing to move into vacant units because of the uptick in traffic. “That mural drew people to our community and instilled a sense of pride for people in our community,” King said.
King opened The King’s Canvas studio and art gallery in November 2017 to support his own artistic efforts, yet he also wanted to expand opportunities for Black artists who needed a place to create and sell their work. In addition, his earlier experiences as a business owner and later as part of a community organization in West Montgomery have given him a background for paying attention to economic development strategies that can help the neighborhood.
“You just naturally assess the needs of the community,” he said. “Through assessing the needs, I noticed a lot of commercial spaces, a lot of green spaces that weren’t activated. As an artist, I noticed that there was very little art.” His travels to other cities alerted him to the terminology of creative placemaking that helped him identify his efforts. “I was so fascinated by it. These were actually strategies that were working all over the nation.”
Montgomery has been encouraging and assisting public art displays in an organized fashion since 2013. That’s when the City Council established the Public Art Commission “to coordinate activities dedicated to the placement of art in public places and to the promotion of public art to enhance the city’s vibrancy and quality of life of its citizens,” the webpage explains. The commission is made up of 11 members appointed by the Mayor of Montgomery and confirmed by the Montgomery City Council.
“It’s a very diverse group of business and art leaders,” said Ashley Ledbetter, who serves as the commission’s chairman. “We select people who have a passion for art and the community.” Since its formation, she added, “We have done a myriad of projects partnering with all kinds of organizations.”
For example, the commission invited local artists to submit proposals to paint and embellish fiberglass benches shaped as open books. The book bench project was conducted in collaboration with the Montgomery Public Libraries as well as the Montgomery City Council and Montgomery County Commission. Ledbetter said, “We strive to promote our local artists.” In the case of the book bench project, she added, “Every commissioner and city councilman was able to select an artist from their district.”
Additional examples of Commission-supported projects include the Wright Flyer and a Nat King Cole mural on Maxwell Boulevard; 50th anniversary Selma-to-Montgomery sculpture installations at Five Points and at the City of St. Jude; a Rosa Parks bronze statue on Dexter Avenue; and sidewalk quote art located throughout downtown. The commission also assisted with a bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr., a bronze statue of General Richard Montgomery, a 50th anniversary Selma to Montgomery mural, and a Rotary Park City Hall parking deck mural. A children’s gate at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and the Nostra Luna marble sculpture in the museum’s sculpture garden are among other projects in the city.
Of King’s mural, Ledbetter said, “I think it’s an awesome thing that he’s creating something better for that area.” Along with public art funded through the commission, Ledbetter said they also hoped to jumpstart “local artists to create things in their own neighborhoods and their own communities. I think and hope that’s exactly what happened.”
A SPECIAL SPOT
With the mural he commissioned and help create, Kevin King has brought renewed energy to West Montgomery’s Washington Park Business District. It’s an area worthy of the recent buzz, thanks to its powerful past. The nearby City of St Jude was the site of the Stars for Freedom Rally on March 24, 1965, a concert featuring celebs like Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Joan Baez and more, that took place the night before the final leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery March led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And he’s not stopping with the mural. King has a detailed plan for further revitalization and has launched a campaign, called “Get Off the Bus,” that’s raising funds from private investment and donations to enact it. Learn more at thekingscanvas.org/donate.
“I realized if you have public art anywhere, if you have murals anywhere, and if you construct it, people will literally gravitate towards it because we’re living in a society where people love taking pictures and videos.” - KEVIN KING