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Painting in Real Spaces
Why Kim Radford Loves Making Murals
Most East Nashville denizens have laid eyes on a mural by Kim Radford, whether or not they knew it was she who painted it. Indeed, casual passersby have been treated to Radford’s colorful palette in her series of super-size musician portraits on the walls at Grimey’s and The Basement East for some time now.
“I have 100 percent always wanted to be a muralist," Radford declares. “I didn’t know that I could be; I didn't know that there’d be enough work, but there's definitely enough work.”
And then there’s Dolly. As in Parton. Which is arguably Radford’s most recognized mural to date.
Featured on the wall at The 5 Spot, the mural includes a sassy Dolly quote taken from an interview in Billboard just as Radford was finishing the piece. Above Dolly, among the butterflies and pollinator garden flowers, the Queen speaks: “Of course, Black Lives Matter. Do we think our little white a**es are the only ones that matter?” We should mention that Radford’s brush cleverly renders the missing letters as a pair of butterflies, which are among Dolly’s emblems.
“I think it’s just visually very beautiful to put typography with painted imagery,” she says of her penchant for including quotations. “It’s nice to just say a little bit and let the visuals take over a little bit. Also, people want to be in a picture with the mural, and it’s like an instant caption.”
Since her early days in art school at Austin Peay State University, Radford has felt the calling to paint big. Still, some old-time East Nashvillians might remember her pre-mural days, back when she shared her folk-art-inspired pieces on the inside walls at the original Family Wash, at the corner of Porter and Greenwood. “I was really inspired by Day of the Dead. I love Mexican folk art. Howard Finster is a big influence, and just folk art in general. It’s so colorful, and it just paired well with the Wash interior,” she recalls.
In the intervening years, Radford’s focus has centered on the outside walls of her hometown. “East Nashville is where the majority of my murals are. A few are sprinkled outside our little island, but these are my people over here.”
One of her most recent off-island murals is another Dolly Parton portrait in Ringgold, Ga. Located at the corner of Tennessee and Nashville Streets on the wall of a commercial building in the center of town, the painting commemorates Dolly’s marriage to Carl Dean in May 1966. People in Ringgold know the story, and they thought the time had come for it to be more widely celebrated.
“The city officials said, 'We need to make this more of a landmark, and a place for people stop off and see a huge mural of Dolly and a place for people to get their picture taken after they get married.’
“Ringgold is still a popular city to get married in, because there is no wait for a license,” she explains.
Radford enjoys the collaborative aspect of creating commissioned murals. “Typically, a client is already inspired by some subject or wants to promote something,” she says. “That’s why I love murals; it’s a good place to springboard off of something someone else is already excited about. I prefer that. I have original ideas, but I’ve always liked marrying it with something someone else is ordering and excited about, and then letting my voice come through that way.”
The path to painting murals began with a children’s summer camp project. “There was something about painting in real spaces and making decisions in real spaces on real walls around real windows that I just loved,” she says. “The gallery was not interesting to me. I was just so bored in a gallery thinking about framing stuff and hanging it just so. I’m more excited about art in real environments.”
Further inspiration came from seeing murals on visits to Atlanta, Venice Beach, and New Orleans while in college. “It was such an impact on me that artists could do their thing on the sides of buildings,” she says. “It just added so much character to the place, and the cities weren’t vanilla anymore. Some cities really invited the art in. They all just blew my mind when I was in college. Every chance I got to paint a mural, whether it was a children’s room, a store — it was my No. 1 ambition.”
Over the years, Radford has had to accept that murals don’t last forever, despite their grandeur and effort. The nature of her work can even require her to paint over her own earlier murals. Does she mind?
“I actually prefer it,” she says. “It’s great job security! At first, when I started painting at Grimey’s and Basement East, it felt strange to spend so many hours doing that. Now I’m used to it. I know the deal — it’s a temporary piece. But they all still matter, and they live on in photographs and on my website, and in the photos people take of themselves with the mural.
“With the frequency that I’ve been able to paint, I have grown so much as an artist in the past two or three years, just in terms of my skill level and what I can handle. And that’s been really good. The murals are getting covered up, but I’m getting better as a painter, too.”
While she has done some interior work in private residences, Radford focuses on large-scale public pieces. “It holds me accountable, painting public art,” she says. “I get into my studio, and I won’t finish anything. I’ll start things I’m excited about, and then lose interest. Public art holds me accountable to finish, and to finish well.
“If it’s [an indoor project], I’m interested, but only if it will be more of a public piece. It’s just where my brain is, and my heart is. It’s what I’m driven by right now.”
She also takes pleasure in the great variety of challenges that come with each new work and with being her own boss. “It’s so fun, because I don’t have to check in, typically, with anyone. There’s a lot of preparation for each day. You think you’re ready, and when you get there, you're out of a color, or you’re short on something. Or you get there and you’re ready to go, and here come the rain clouds. Or the side of the building is being beat down with sunshine, and you realize you need an umbrella. There’s just a lot of variables, working outside and managing multiple jobs at once,” Radford says. “I can just slide in, do my work, and leave a mural behind, and I like that.”
Many of her best-loved murals have been of women artists: Joni Mitchell, Lilly Hyatt, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Allison Russell, Valerie June. The portraits, usually drawn from photographs or album artwork, are loving and playful. The artists seem to be in motion, and their hair is fabulous. At scale, the figures take on the mythic quality of Nashville’s pantheon of folk-art goddesses. “I paint a lot of women, and I’m never gonna leave a woman on the wall looking awkward. I’m just not,” Radford says.
While the portraits are usually based on photographs, Radford renders them in a signature style that’s all her own. “Probably my favorite way I got to paint is how I painted the Black Keys. It was loose, but it’s photo-based, so all of that’s there. I love it when I can just take off and start slapping paint around, but you can still totally see it’s them.”
So how does one go about painting a mural, anyway? “I never free-hand,” she says. “My favorite tool to use now is something called a ‘squiggle grid.’ I learned it from some younger artists, and it’s popular with graffiti artists. It gives you way more reference points on the wall and makes mural-painting more accessible. It’s one of my favorite methods, and I love it now. But I also use a projector sometimes.”
Folks often stop by to watch her paint, and Radford enjoys conversations with the spectators. “I think it’s where I’m most comfortable, with a paintbrush and paint. I love to talk about it, and people are typically talking to me about the process, or they’re excited about who I’m painting. I like all those conversations. I’m a little shy and more reserved when talking about other things. I’m just more of a private person. Let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about painting and art and making stuff.”