Ashley Bergeron had plans to be home in Nashville for Christmas morning, but a nagging feeling told her to make a last minute change of plans. The next morning, she woke up to the news that a suicidal man had detonated a bomb on historic Second Avenue, destroying a huge swath of it. The blast shook her home and workshop, Studio 208 on Third Avenue, and shattered some of her exhibits, which now lay in colorful pieces of glass in the streets.
Still, Bergeron counted her blessings that she wasn’t home, and despite losing a major piece of art, the rest of her gallery had survived, even after being thrown across the studio.
“It really was a Christmas miracle,” she said.
With the number of disasters Nashville experienced in the past year, damaged buildings were nothing new. Last year’s racial justice protests rocked downtown Nashville, and before that, tornadoes left a path of destruction through Middle Tennessee. While the Christmas bombing displaced many residents and businesses, people grew paranoid of what lay around the corner.
Several months later, much of the area within the blast’s radius is still under construction and closed off to the public. Now, instead of hosting a parade of people for the summer, tourists took pictures of what was left of Second Avenue’s once lively boutiques and restaurants.
Instead of country music filling the air, rattling sounds of construction equipment served as a gloomy reminder of a year of turmoil.
Bergeron has found another location for her new studio, Swipe Right Art on Fifth Avenue, but wished she could do something to help others displaced by the bomb. Some of Second Avenue’s buildings require extra work to restore properly and could take up to a year. But where some saw boarded-up broken windows, Bergeron saw a blank canvas.
“For me, the best way to heal was to give back and bring vibrancy to my neighborhood,” said Bergeron.
She approached John Griffin, regional director for Akzo Nobel, a paint manufacturing company, about putting a bandaid on Nashville’s tattered image. Instead of broken facades, asked Bergeron, what if Nashville’s community used the opportunity to color Second Avenue?
The project, aptly named Let’s Color Nashville, took off quickly. Within weeks, the Civic Design Center, Hoover Paint, the LKQ corporation and others pulled Nashville’s resources together and brainstormed how to paint as many windows as possible. Hoover Paints donated the painting supplies.
In the meantime, Bergeron was tasked with finding local artists. As a gallery owner, Bergeron is in the business of collecting local artists and has spent years cultivating relationships with them. A grant acquired from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee made sure they would be getting paid for their talents.
The next step was convincing the displaced inhabitants of Second Avenue to get on board, a task left for the Downtown Partnership of Nashville. Some were already deep in repairs and didn’t need help, and others were worried about potential messes of lackadaisical painters. It was understood that the area would hopefully be completed sooner rather than later, and the murals would have come down to find other homes. Despite reservations, most businesses joined the project.
With additional donations streaming in, Let’s Color Nashville was ready to go as big as possible.
On May 7, more than 100 volunteers, company employees, and artists showed up to paint murals. Tarps were carefully placed to avoid potential spills and black and white stencils of Nashville buildings laid the foundations for amateur painters to join.
Over the next two days more than 10 local artists painted either their own murals or collaborated with others. They were given only one rule: avoid politics and promote positivity. To speed up the process, each artist was accompanied by volunteers, who in turn brought their families.
“It was really cool to chat with people walking along the street,” said Niki Adams, who painted the Nashville skyline in the form of a heartbeat.
“I just think it’s really great that I live in a city that really supports the arts,” she added.
For the first time in months, visitors to Second Avenue were there to see something other than construction equipment. Tourists took pictures as the street came to life. Among the visitors were Mayor John Cooper, who placed a few brush strokes of his own, and police officers, who had been among the first responders to evacuate residents before the bomb detonated. They were recognized for their service by painting the ceremonial first brush strokes. They were also served breakfast, along with some of the residents they evacuated.
“I was thrilled when several business owners stepped out of the buildings and thanked us personally for it. Most said they were about a year out before getting all the windows replaced and therefore were thrilled to have something bright and cheerful to look at coming into the office/building,” said Catron Wallace, who painted a mural of Nashville’s AT&T building with a splash of Van Gogh.
In a few short hours, Nashville residents formed a community, bonding over placing their city’s resilient character on damaged walls. COVID-19 protocols were followed, but people simply enjoyed being outside. For Griffin, the most memorable point was being with his employees and families who he hadn’t seen in more than a year because of the pandemic.
“The laughter and the smiles made the six weeks of hard work pay off,” he said.
By Saturday, nearly 30 murals were painted, including larger projects meant to beautify Germantown, which had been struck by a tornado last year. Murals were signed by the artists, and some even included signatures from volunteers.
The murals will eventually have to come down, but organizers have already found them new homes in local schools and the police department.
“Akzo Nobel did not and could not have executed this event by ourselves. Without our partnerships with LKQ Corporation, Hoover Paint, Ashley, the Civic Design Center and the mayor’s office, the event would not have been as successful,” said Jim Dillard, communications manager for Akzo Nobel. “The way the artists are able to take paint and apply to a canvas demonstrates their power.”
While project organizers aren’t “counting on anymore disasters to create opportunities,” said Aaron Woods, a spokesperson for Akzo Nobel, they hope more opportunities will arise for Nashville’s community to come together through art.
No more disasters please, joked Griffin.