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The little town that paints

Nestled among the temperate woods of Alabama’s Black Belt region due south of historic Selma is Camden, which might be among the state’s most remote small towns having no connection to federal highways nor interstates. But for all its isolation, nobody can call Camden uncultured. The murals that coat the walls of its buildings can be viewed from every street in its humble downtown.

Camden saw its first murals take shape in 2014, according to Kristin Law, art programs and marketing director for the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center. The small town has a place on what’s known as the Black Belt Quilt Mural Trail, a series of outdoor wall artworks among the communities in Black Belt counties like Wilcox County, of which Camden is the seat of government.

“Those are just to be a trail that draws people throughout the Black Belt,” Law said. “Each quilt mural tells a story of the place where it is, modeled after Ponchatoula, Louisiana, which has a similar trail down there. Our director, Sulynn Creswell, had been down there for a program and liked the way they did them.”

One quilt mural, painted in blue and red geometric shapes resembling a pattern, is encased in glass in a small box adjacent to Black Belt Treasures’ shop on Claiborne Street, the main road going through town. It was a collaborative piece painted by a several in the Camden community — youth and older residents alike.

Mary Forrest Bell, 17, said she’s proud to have contributed to several of the town’s murals and noted the protected quilt mural as the first she worked on.

“(Cresswell) was working on one of the quilt murals and the girl she was working with on it had to leave, so they pulled me in to help,” Bell said. “I love painting them, it’s so much fun.”

They’ve inspired her to pursue an artistic career once she graduates from Wilcox Academy, a private high school in Camden enrolling about 250 students.

“I’ve taken art classes from Black Belt Treasures since I was in kindergarten, six years old, so they’ve seen me grow and learn,” Bell said. “My school asked me to paint a mural in our gym, and (Law) helped on that one.”

In the meantime, as she looks toward finishing high school next year, Bell has sought to keep Camden’s art flowing with other murals. If you continue down Claiborne Street, you’ll see a block letter art piece welcoming visitors from the north end of the town, and it’s a creation she’s particularly proud of.

“I like the Camden one because it’s something I worked so hard and so long on,” she said. “I’m one of three artists to work on that, and it’s something we’ll be completing soon.”

The letters span a side wall of the office of the Wilcox Progressive Era, a weekly newspaper covering the heart of the Black Belt that prints about 2,400 issues each Wednesday. 

Law explained that each letter of the mural represents an aspect of the town and its surrounding area, such as the natural scenery and some of the main industry in Wilcox County.

“The ‘C’ represents the Alabama River and the ferry that crosses it, the ‘A’ is for the arts and ‘M’ has architecture and history,” Law said. “The ‘D’ is natural resources, the ‘E’ is wildlife like deer, turkey and alligators and ‘N’ is natural flowers that are in the area.”

Looking on at the letters, Bell explained a few in more depth. She said the ‘M’ contains the Wilcox Female Institute, a boarding school that operated from 1850 to 1910 and is now used as the Wilcox Historical Society’s headquarters. The ‘A’ for ‘arts’ features a guitarist and quilting and the ‘D’ has cotton and cows which dot the county’s farmland, she said.

Bell and other artists like Law as well as the occasional helper from the community started work on the Camden letter mural in September, according to Law. They’re just now wrapping it up this spring after a slew of obstacles prolonged their progress.

“You have to get all the right colors and mixing them is pretty expensive,” she said. “We had a tragedy happen in town that caused us to stop for a while, and then it became too cold to paint when it was raining. Now we’ve got to trace the outline of the letters and then we’re done.”

Collaboration is a common thread for the city’s murals, with other high school students like Barrett Travis, 16, a friend of Bell’s and fellow student at Wilcox Academy, pitching in when she can.

“I worked with Black Belt Treasures on the quilt, one at the Camden School of Arts and Technology and the one at the school gym at Wilcox Academy,” she said to name a few examples.

Travis has called Camden home all her childhood and said she’s been pleased to see its small but mighty pull for visitors increase over the years because of the murals and some businesses.

“Black Belt Treasures helps to tell people about what to look at in Camden and The Pecan on Broad, (a local restaurant), is another thing that people like to go visit,” Travis said. “I love the Camden mural that Mary Forrest has been working on. I’ve always seen those in other towns and now we have our own.”

In particular, Travis said Bell has been a central figure in the town’s recent arts developments. “We’re really proud of her,” she said. “She entered a bunch of stuff in our school art show and she’s going to state competitions with so many different pieces.”

Camden’s not a large town; it’s just shy of 2,000 residents and has been declining in population since 2000. But if there’s one mural many of its people revere, it’s the one stretching across the north wall of the local State Farm Insurance branch. After all, many of them lent a hand to paint it, and you can spot their names rolling across the brick canvas.

“It’s part of the ‘Revolution of Joy’ series by artist Trey Taylor and his wife, Elaine, and those are going to be in every county of the Black Belt,” Law said. “He’s got them in Dallas County, working on one in Uniontown in Perry County currently and there’s two in Selma.”

She said the series depicts a monk traveling and “spreading love and happiness throughout,” with each town’s residents encouraged to be a part of the journey by helping paint and write their names on their local piece of the series.

“Some of the murals here we’ve done through grants across various state agencies, and the stipulation with a lot of these grants is we have to bring community together,” said Michael Cook, who’s the director of the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce as well as Law’s husband. 

“We’ll have people paint from four years old to 90 years old, Black, white, man, woman, it doesn’t matter. They all come out and put a little paint on the wall.”

Cook said visitors seem to appreciate the community mural and others across town, too. “About several times a week, I’ll drive through town and see folks stopping to take pictures of the mural,” he said. “Most of the time they’re folks that seem to be from out of town I do not recognize.”

Camden has even been able to attract serious muralists and dedicated artists to leave their mark on the town, Cook said. “One side of The Pecan on Broad was professionally done,” he said in reference to a sign mural promoting the restaurant on its west wall. “They came in and had a commercial mural painter do it right.”

What’s next for Camden? Law said there’s plans for interactive murals, where visitors can take photos that embolden them to become one with the art, standing in front of things like angel wings which noted Instagram artist Kelsey Montague has painted across many states and countries.

“Those are going to be right here on Nelson Plumbing Contractors’ building, and we’re finalizing those designs now,” she said. “They will not be the butterfly wings like you see in other places, but they should be fun. Our version of that is fitting for our community, and that’s all I’ll say about that.”

Tags: Camden

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