Downtown murals proposed

Published 9:08 am Thursday, July 10, 2014

AHOSKIE – They want to paint the town red.

And also blue, and yellow, and green, and quite a few more colors of the spectrum.

It’s a plan to beautify downtown Ahoskie as well as create a tourism attraction.

It’s being called, for now, the Hertford County-Ahoskie Mural Project, and it involves the Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce, Roanoke-Chowan Community College, and the Chowan Discovery Group.

While this trio has set a goal of 10-plus murals around the county, they hope to begin with two artistic creations on Main Street in downtown Ahoskie.

“They’ll be made out of mosaics, out of paint, out of paint on panels, and paint on walls,” said Discovery Group founding member and Cofield native Marvin Jones. “We want people to come to Ahoskie to see murals, for Ahoskie to be known for murals, to be a public gallery.”

Jones and Ahoskie Chamber executive vice-president Amy Braswell appeared before the Ahoskie Town Council at their monthly meeting on Tuesday to make their first pitch. Earlier, Jones had solicited advice from the town’s Historic District Commission and they recommended first the presentation before council.

As a run-up to the project, Roanoke-Chowan Community College Fine Arts Department chairman Jim Messer plans a special unveiling of a mural his students have prepared in a presentation at the college on Aug. 18 from 5-6:30 p.m.

“The purpose of the one they did out there is assembling a team and techniques,” said Braswell. “It’s not an Ahoskie mural, but rather a Roanoke-Chowan Community College mural, and it’s fantastic. We invite you to come out and see what they’ve done and the quality of their work.”

Also attending the council meeting was RCCC President Dr. Michael Elam, who said he had previewed the work and feels it will be done by its completion date.

“We’re thinking the content of our mural will be about our history,” Braswell said. “Mr. Messer is working on mosaic tiles that tell our history on each building downtown, and the ones I’ve seen are very pretty.  Hertford County clay will be used to make the murals and we’d like for Ahoskie to be known as the town with all that art.  We’re unique, we’re a railroad town with all our buildings still intact, and I think this could add a lot to downtown.”

Jones said two painted murals have already been completed: one in Harrellsville, and the Robert L. Vann mural on Academy Street.

“We have a lot invested in promoting the history as well as the economic development of this area,” Jones said.

Braswell said there is, in development, a state African-American Cultural Trail that will begin in either Durham or Halifax County.

“We want to become a large piece of that,” Braswell said. “We want Ahoskie to be a part of that because we have more to offer to that trail than most of the surrounding counties.”

Councilwoman Linda Blackburn suggested the old Ahoskie Train Depot as one of the mural themes, and inquired if part of the funding might come from a façade grant as a suggested funding alternative.

“We’ve offered owners on Main Street opportunity after opportunity with that façade grant,” Blackburn said. “(This) might be an inspiration for them to get involved.”

Councilman Charles Freeman inquired about the subject matter of the RCCC mural and was told it includes programs that, over time, have become part of the RCCC curriculum, according to Dr. Elam.

“We’re trying to pictorially show what we have to offer to the community,” said Elam.

Freeman said he hoped the mural would depict the former prison that once occupied the grounds on which the college stands, as well as the small building in the center of campus.

“Because that’s where we all worked and the library was over in the sleeping area of the prison,” Freeman recounted. “In the development of the mural we have to see our history.”

Elam said he would take the suggestion back to Messer and his art crew.

Councilwoman Elaine Myers said there are drawings available of what downtown Ahoskie looked like in some people’s memories.

“Somewhere I hope you can do the tobacco warehouses,” Myers stated. “That is such an important part of history of the whole area, and we have a lot of gifted people here. I appreciate the talent you’ve assembled to put all of this together.”

As a point of comfort, Braswell said high school students at Hertford County High are building benches that will be placed in front of the murals.

“The three general topics are: Main Street the way it used to be, the tobacco warehouse on market day, and the town when tobacco was in season,” Braswell stated. “Another branch I’m going off on is the harness racing track at the Atlantic District Fairgrounds.  It’s an eastern seaboard thing.

“This is the direction we’re going in, “she added. “It’s in the interest of tourism and making the town more attractive.”

Braswell said a committee is being formed consisting of RCCC people, members of the Historic Commission, members of the Chamber, and she hoped someone from the Town Council would also serve.

Mayor Brien Lassiter suggested polling people in the town about what they remember and how that can be turned into art.

“The best part of my memory (of the tobacco warehouses) were the ice-cold Cokes and the ‘Nabs,” the mayor recalled.

Town Manager Tony Hammond reminded everyone that the image of the old Basnight tobacco warehouse is the feature image of the 2014 Ahoskie Heritage Festival.

“We went back into the records and found that warehouse was originally called ‘the Hub’ and its first season was 1906,” Hammond related. “There’s a beautiful picture of it on the Web.”

Marvin Jones’ Chowan Discovery Group will handle funding for the murals, according to Braswell.  Though based in Washington, D.C., the Chowan Discovery Group is a 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt, non-profit organization incorporated in the state of North Carolina.

“This is a project Jim Messer and I came up with and Amy and Dr. Elam have joined us on this,” Jones said.

The presentation concluded with an invitation for all to attend the mural unveiling at the college on Aug. 18, the date students arrive back for classes.

“So the students can enjoy it also,” Dr. Elam said.