As a world-renowned tourist attraction, Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, has taken on an identity that has grown larger than the city itself, much less the surrounding Whitehaven community.
With the addition of a new mural at the Whitehaven Community Center, and several other pieces, one area artist is working to bring the neighborhood into contrast.
“I thought about how many people come into Whitehaven every day to go to Graceland. People come in, 500,000 people a year on average, are coming into Graceland…
“You just wonder, how many of those people actually know they’re in Whitehaven. Most of them probably think they’re in Graceland,” said visual artist Tony Hawkins.
Done in the loose style of neighborhood artists, the mural provides a snapshot of the community that goes beyond its legendary anchor.
In addition to Graceland, which opened to the public 40 years ago on June 7, 1982, hand-drawn portraits painted in vivid loose brush strokes capture moments of faith, education, athletics, community, entrepreneurship, achievement and joy.
Urban-style hand drawn lettering punctuates the various themes.
“I wanted the design to be bright. My concern was in an urban area, of course, you have a lot of drab colors. You have a lot of buildings. You have a lot of businesses.
“I wanted something that would pop. Something that would grab your attention. And I wanted to use bright colors to make sure that when you look at it, you feel happy.
“Colors make you feel different ways, so I use a lot of bright tones to create a happy mood … I call it the ‘Trust the Process’ mural,” Hawkins said.
For Hawkins, who grew up in Westwood in Southwest Memphis, the phrase translates into community members looking out for one another as if they were family members.
“There are people in that neighborhood that fed me, that took care of me in my younger years … If we continue to do that, we won’t have to worry about the neighborhood. We’ll just continue reciprocating and trusting the process,” said Hawkins, who attended Whitehaven High School.
The artwork was presented to the public on Friday (June 3). Several community leaders were in attendance.
The presentation is tied to other projects already visible in the neighborhood. A banner and several bus shelters on Elvis Presley Boulevard are rendered in the same style.
“They wanted a graphic artist to come and do the banners and the bus shelters. I did the design graphically on my computer and then I came and did it by hand on the brick. It’s the exact same design,” said Hawkins.
The works were commissioned through Whitehaven 3.0, which is the neighborhood-specific slice of the overall Memphis 3.0 plan to revitalize parts of the city.
The Urban Art Commission oversaw the effort. Entries were submitted to a select committee that included former UAC artists and community leaders.
“Throughout this specific project process, the selection committee expressed an interest in designs that were vibrant and spoke to strong, multigenerational family ties.
“They were looking for images of community with references to the abundance of culture, entrepreneurship, local artists, legacy and education in Whitehaven.
“Tony’s designs spoke to these interests in a way that ultimately resulted in his selection,” said Gabrielle Brooks, UAC communications manager.
After the banner and bus shelters proved popular, the mural was commissioned.
Originally, it was slated for the Whitehaven Plaza. Logistics, however, proved daunting. So, the city changed locations.
Hawkins adjusted the scope and scale of the project to fit the new canvas and got to work. Soon, curious children gravitated toward the evolving artwork.
“It hit me when I was working on it, ‘Man, these kids, all they have to look at while they are on this playground is a brick wall while they’re at this splashpad.
“Now, they have this big, bright piece of artwork to look at – it’s very intentional – it speaks directly to them. It speaks to a multitude of things.
“They can either see themselves or their family in that mural. Or it’s maybe somebody they want to be one day,” said Hawkins.
In addition to the mural, the UAC has several other projects lined up through Memphis 3.0, including Hawkins’ neighborhood of Westwood.
“We currently have several ongoing projects, as well as a few upcoming events we’d love folks to come out and participate in. Down the road, the community of Westwood will be receiving a new mural to replace the ‘Welcome to Westwood’ mural that currently exists in partnership with Uplift Westwood Community Development Corporation,” said Brooks.