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Teens installing Orange Mound mural with focus on history and future

By AJ Duggar, High Ground News

The long, white exterior wall of Whitten Brothers Hardware at 2909 Park Avenue has been pressure washed and prepared for a stunning new mural. Its team of young muralists expects to completed the piece by the end of November.

The talented teens of RedZone Ministries, an evangelical outreach ministry that serves Orange Mound youth, began the project in June and recently completed the research phase. Research included both diving into the history of their historic community, as well as conversations with current residents.

“I wanted the kids to really understand the process and to teach them all of the steps to make a mural,” said Yancy Villa-Calvo, lead artist and mentor for the project.

“[To] learn what type of material, what is the process, how do you get the information, how do you start doing the drawings and how do you prepare the wall?,” she continued. “…what is the engagement, how to ask questions, how to interview people, collect the stories and all of that. It’s a long process.”

It took a few months, but the artists recently agreed on the content for their collaborative piece.

“There is so much history that we could do ten murals,” said Villa-Calvo of the difficulty in focusing the mural’s design.

The final design will incorporate the history of the neighborhood, most of which was the 5,000-acre Deaderick plantation prior to emancipation. It will also include Orange Mound residents’ future vision for the community.

“I worked with the Redzone kids for a long time, and I feel it’s an opportunity for them to learn more about their neighborhood through art and do more research and be proud of the things that can be polished even more,” she said.

After emancipation, the Deaderick plantation was parceled out and sold to African Americans, who build the first self-sustaining black community in the U.S. post-Civil War. The teens said learning about Orange Mound showed them just how unique and important their neighborhood is to both to Memphis’ history and the nation.

“After learning more about the neighborhood and the community, it basically opened my eyes up more,” said youth muralist Nasson Smith.

Smith is quiet and reserved but passionate about his work on the mural, which he says symbolizes the culture of Orange Mound.

The young muralists are temporarily referring to themselves as The Orange Mound Mural Project but haven’t settled on an official name. They’re also designing a logo for t-shirts.

“The wall in length is 95-feet, but the height is 18-feet,” said Smith of the size of their canvas. “Basically, we want the people to see our work.”

Yancy Villa-Calvo (front row, left) and the teens of RedZone Ministries line up to make notes on a draft of the mural they’re installing on the Whitten Brothers Hardware Store in Orange Mound. (Yancy Villa-Calvo)

Designing for Community

According to the research conducted by Smith and his colleagues, Orange Mound got its name from an orange but not an edible one.

“Mock orange came from the Osage orange tree. It’s not a real orange. You can’t eat it,” said Smith.

The mural will include depictions of the Osage’s fruit, seeds, leaves and flowers. It will also include cotton flowers to represent the sacrifices of its land and people under slavery.

“All of these planted seeds started bearing the fruit and bearing the flowers,” said Villa-Calvo, which works as a poignant metaphor for the community’s growth since its founding.

The Whitten Brothers building will also feature in the mural. The family-owned business opened in 1929 and has been a staple in Orange Mound since.

“They were a big part of Orange Mound,” said Smith.

Getting Inspired

Villa-Calvo founded the Go Engage Memphis Soul or GEMS initiative while working with the Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Growth Plan. Through GEMS, she used art as an engagement tool to help residents participate in the planning and development process.

As part of her work with Memphis 3.0, Villa-Calvo spent April through June of 2018 embedded in Orange Mound, where she met the Redzone youth. Villa-Calvo also worked on the Barrier Free Art installation with the Orange Mound Gallery in March 2018. She said those two experiences solidified her interest in continuing to work with Orange Mound residents.

“I was very interested in the conversation [around] the relationship between the black and brown communities,” she said. “We can talk about the hardships that each of the communities are undergoing and then looking at common ground and how can we prosper in Memphis.”

Villa-Calvo was born in Mexico and became a U.S. citizen in 2018 after 25 years in the country.

Related: “Newly naturalized, the leading family of Latino Memphis votes in their first U.S. election”

Villa-Calvo felt a mural project would be perfect for the RedZone Ministries participants because of its combination of artistry, history and community, but it’s also something she says anyone, with the right planning and partners, can do.

“It’s fun,” she said. “You don’t have to have a degree to apply to projects.”

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