Artist paints mural that tells the story of East Alabama

By Lauren Johnson, Opelika-Auburn News

Chris Johnson says his mural-painting career started as a way to tell the story of local communities.

“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most rewarding,” said Johnson, who lives in Columbus, Georgia.

Johnson has completed two murals in the City of Opelika, one on the Opelika Public Library and his latest project on the Museum of East Alabama, which was completed on March 4.

“I always tell people that whenever I go into the communities it’s more than just a painting and I’m more than just a painter,” Johnson said. “It’s really an experience that the whole town gets where they see the process and they form this stronger appreciation not to just my piece, but to public art in general.”

GETTING STARTED

Johnson’s first step when beginning on a project is to ask his client what they are trying to achieve with the mural.

Glenn Buxton, director of the Museum of East Alabama, said he wanted the mural to represent what’s displayed in the museum, which not only tells the history of Opelika but also the history of the five surrounding counties that make up East Alabama.

Buxton walked Johnson through the museum and pointed out what he wanted to showcase.

The mural depicts the Creek Indian Chief Yoholo Micco, who was a chief in the Eufaula area; an Opelika buggy from the 1920s; the Clement Hotel; a flag for Auburn University; Old Nancy, a 1905 Case steam traction engine; Pepperell Mills, which manufactured fabrics; Booker T. Washington, who founded Tuskegee Institute in 1881; the Lee County Courthouse; a train to represent the importance of the railroad in the area; Governor James Samford; the Tuskegee Airmen; and baseball players from the Opelika Owls, a minor league team from Opelika.

With all these different elements, Johnson wasn’t sure how he was going to fulfill the vision until he suggested using a sepia color palette, which tied all the images together into a cohesive piece.

“The mural is beyond what I thought it was gonna look like,” Buxton said. “I think it’s gonna make a big difference to our downtown area.”

Buxton said the museum talked about putting a mural on the building for a few years. In 2020, a muralist and Auburn University students were getting ready to start the project when COVID hit.

Buxton said the university “pulled the plug” on the mural and “it looked like the project was dead.”

Later, the Opelika Public Library hired Johnson to paint a mural on the building, which caught the eye of museum board member Ginger Stern. One thing led to another and Buxton said Johnson was hired to paint the mural on the museum building.

“Everybody that I have talked to that’s come by here is just amazed by what it looks like,” he said.

PURSUING ART

Johnson, 40, said he’s had a passion for art since he was a child and knew he wanted his career to involve some form of art. With his parent’s encouragement, he pursued his dream.

Art has taken many different forms in Johnson’s life from making posters in school to printing, wood carving, painting and teaching.

Johnson got his Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio art from Clemson University and his Masters of Fine Arts in studio art from the University of South Carolina so he could teach college-level classes.

He worked as an administrative assistant in Auburn University’s Art Department until he got a teaching job at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Ga., where he teaches all areas of studio art and art history.

Johnson and his students started doing outreach projects in the community, which opened the door for other communities to contact him about painting a mural.

“The funny thing was I didn’t even paint until about six years ago right before I started murals,” Johnson said. “I got my bachelor’s and master’s in printmaking, so I would carve big wood blocks. Before I started doing murals, I was the wood carving guy.”

Over six years, Johnson has painted more than 50 murals in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina. He said there’s more to come.

With a special interest in history, many of Johnson’s murals highlight the history of local towns in the South.

“I did a lot of research and worked with communities to figure out what kind of story they want to tell,” he said. “Then I’m the guy that puts all the pieces together, makes it an aesthetic design and paints it.”

Johnson has worked on a variety of different projects including agricultural, historical and postcard-style murals at all kinds of locations.

His wife Natalie, a librarian at South Columbus Public Library, helps Johnson with research and leads him in the right direction. Their children Graham, 6, and Keller, 3, enjoy participating in art projects around the house, and Johnson calls them his “future mural apprentices.”

Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson is photographed in Opelika, Ala., after painting the mural on the side of the Museum of East Alabama on March 4, 2022. Johnson has completed two murals in the City of Opelika, one on the Opelika Public Library and his latest project on the Museum of East Alabama, which was completed on March 4. (Lauren Johnson/Opelika-Auburn News via AP)PA

‘LIKE A PUZZLE’

For the mural at the East Alabama Museum, Johnson used nine gallons of paint in different shades of brown to get a sepia tone that matches the current theme inside the museum and to give it a historic look.

“The cool thing with them is all these murals have their individual kind of issues or a set of problems you’re trying to creatively problem-solve,” he said.

Johnson said one challenge with this mural was unifying all the different aspects of the design. He also was using color photographs as his reference so he had to convert the images to brown shades.

“It’s challenging, but it’s really fun because it’s like a puzzle,” he said.

Johnson also had to plan his design around doors, downspouts, an elevation change and weather.

He spent 21 days working on the piece and said he thinks this one is his favorite because of the freedom he had to create the design.

“It’s got a lot of different objects and it tells a story,” he said. “It’s kind of a coherent story in a linear way, which I’m pretty happy with.”

Another of Johnson’s favorites is the Lady Columbus five-story mural he painted in 2019 in downtown Columbus on the side of Heritage Tower.

When Johnson leaves behind a mural in a town, he doesn’t see it again much except through social media posts, which he said is like “getting a postcard from yourself from the past.”

“The cool thing is I saw my first senior picture in front of the Opelika Library mural,” he said. “I don’t know who this girl is or who posted this, but it’s cool that they take that to commemorate their senior year.”

Johnson said he can’t wait to see how the new museum mural will pop up on social media.

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