Artist Michael McBride with his mural of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis at the corner of Commerce Street and Rep. John Lewis Ave., N., in downtown Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Michael McBride and the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis had much in common. Both grew up similarly, in rural Southern farming communities: McBride in Medon, Tennessee, in Madison County, and Lewis in Troy, Alabama. Both were members of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
McBride, a Nashville-based Black artist and professor at Tennessee State University, never had the chance to meet Lewis. But when he was approached about painting a Lewis-centric mural and charged with completing it in record time, he knew what he would paint and how he’d paint it.
“I’ve always made a point to produce work that positive in nature and reflects my history and my African-American heritage,” McBride said.
Nashville Metro Councilmember Joy Styles, chair of the Representative John Lewis Mural Committee, called McBride in August to commission him. The first artist commissioned for the mural didn’t work out, and now Styles’ committee was in a hurry: Could McBride finish by the end of the year?
McBride, who has painted murals before and who has work in Nashville’s Music City Center, marshalled his forces. He and artists Donna Woodley, Micki Yearwood and Rebecca Demaree painted seven days a week, seven or eight hours a day in order to finish by the Nov. 4 unveiling.
Styles had told him Lewis was to be central to the mural and McBride added distinctly Nashville touches: a depiction of the main gate at Fisk University , the Tennessee State Capitol and iconic Freedom Riders and members of the Civil Rights Movement, including Diane Nash and Ernest “Rip” Patton, among others.
Instead of spray painting the mural, McBride and his team used the “parachute method” of mural painting, which allows painters to work on clothlike panels that can be affixed to exterior walls rather than requiring the artists to work on scaffolding outdoors. The four-story mural in downtown Nashville is the largest McBride has done.
Lewis launched his career as civil rights activist and leader while a student at Nashville’s American Baptist College, leading lunch counter sit ins at Woolworths on what is now Rep. John Lewis Way, before going on to chair the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was elected to Congress from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District in 1987 and served until his death in July 2020.
McBride said he drew inspiration from watching Lewis’s trajectory.
“No matter how much you get beat down, keep striving. Watching him in interviews was very inspiring.”
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