Public art projects make murals available to everyone

DILLSBORO: In 2013, artist Doreyl Ammons Cain created the mural 'Oh Hallowed Ground,' for the town of Dillsboro. Four years later, in 2017, she and her husband, Jerry, co-founded the Appalachian Mural Trail. Photo courtesy of Ammons Cain

Local artist Doreyl Ammons Cain maps the region of Western North Carolina not by roads but by murals. In 2017, she and her husband, Jerry Cain, co-founded the nonprofit Appalachian Mural Trail. The organization’s objective is to highlight historical works of public art in towns and cities within easy driving distance from the Blue Ridge Parkway (including parts of Virginia). Through consultation, the nonprofit also helps communities without murals find ways to add color to unadorned buildings. 

With an online mural map, as well as pamphlets available at all welcome centers across the state, Doreyl believes the project could help stimulate local economies by drawing visitors to lesser-known regions of the state. She also sees it as a chance for neighbors to come together to participate in a fun and inspiring activity. “It sort of gives an uplifting self-image to the community,” she says. “And through that, there is greater development of interest in the area.”

In Asheville, four public projects are included on the trail. The Lexington Avenue Gateway mural features works by artists Molly Must, Daniel Beck, Joshua Spiceland, Harper Leich, Kurt Theasler and Steve Lister. At Pack’s Tavern, Doreyl’s own work, Shindig on the Green, highlights the region’s musicians. Chicken Alley, named for its location and designed by Must, interprets the history of a chicken-processing plant owned by Sam and Argie Young. Meanwhile, Triangle Park, on Market Street, a collaborative effort involving the Just Folks Organization, the Asheville Design Center and Must, celebrates the stories of Asheville’s historic African-American business district and East End neighborhood.

Membership with the nonprofit is required for inclusion on the trail. The mural must also be accessible to the public. In addition, Doreyl says, “The work should be high-quality, and it should tell the story of the community.”

From murals to frescoes

Currently, the nonprofit promotes 53 works. Of these designs, seven are frescoes. Unlike murals, frescoes use sand and lime to create a plaster that then is spread across a wall and subsequently painted on. (Michelangelo’s mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is perhaps the most famous example of the medium.)

In Asheville, plans are currently underway to create a fresco at Haywood Street, the United Methodist mission congregation and faith-based nonprofit. Early roadblocks, however, have postponed the project. Last year, the congregation was awarded a $72,500 grant from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. But in March of this year, Haywood Street withdrew from the proposal due to ongoing objections by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit based in Madison, Wis., that contested the use of taxpayers’ money on a project carried out by a religious-based organization.

“The loss of the grant has not affected our belief that we’re going to make this happen,” says artist Christopher Holt, who has been commissioned to develop the fresco. To date, the congregation has raised $50,000 in donations for the artwork, with a total goal of $100,000. When completed, the piece will be 28 feet wide and 11 feet tall, located on the central wall of the congregation’s sanctuary. Once finished, it will be considered for inclusion on the Appalachian Mural Trail.

Blessed are the poor

The fresco’s design is inspired by the Beatitudes, eight blessings recounted by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. In the address, Jesus declared that the poor, meek and merciful were among those considered blessed. Brian Combs, the congregation’s founding pastor, describes the homily as a “subversive sermon.” At the time of its delivery, he explains, only the rich and powerful were thought to be in God’s favor.

SELF-IMPRISONMENT: The Rev. Brian Combs, pictured, believes the fresco project at Haywood Street church will take roughly two years to complete. In the meantime, the nonprofit enjoys the series of egg tempera paintings donated by local artist Rob Rikoon, who is featured in the work to the right of the skeleton. Photo by Thomas Calder
SELF-IMPRISONMENT: The Rev. Brian Combs, pictured, believes the fresco project at Haywood Street church will take roughly two years to complete. In the meantime, the nonprofit enjoys the series of egg tempera paintings donated by local artist Rob Rikoon, who is featured in the work to the right of the skeleton. Photo by Thomas Calder

Following the ethos of the Beatitudes, the congregation plans to go against tradition when it comes to its fresco. “When you look at the history of religious art, God is almost always rendered European and male,” says Combs. “That’s because the person paying for the art was European and male.”

At Haywood Street, there will be no God figure featured in the project. “We want to do the opposite and say that the holiest people around here are the ones that are struggling the most,” Combs explains.

The nonprofit plans to achieve this by inviting local members to pose for the piece. Its first model, Charles Burns, 62, considers himself blessed to be part of the design. “I’ve got lung cancer pretty bad, so I think they figured they were going to get me while they still had me,” he says with a laugh.

Community involvement, notes Holt, is key to the project’s success. In addition to fundraising and modeling, the actual construction of the fresco — from the mixing of the materials to the plaster’s application on the wall — will require all hands on deck.

This community effort, says Combs, will ideally bring together all walks of life, both during the process and after its completion. “We hope when folks come here to see this painting, they’re going to say, ‘My understanding of God is white and male. Here, I see people considered sacred being depicted in entirely different ways. Why is that? Why is a church paying to have a fresco with homeless models? What else is happening here? What part of Asheville am I in?’”

The full spectrum

Funding for art projects is never a simple task, says Doreyl. And for some communities, no matter the desire, the money simply isn’t there. In such cases, the Appalachian Mural Trail encourages postage stamp murals.

“These are small murals,” Doreyl explains. “It still tells the history of the town. And it could still draw people in.” Perhaps more importantly, such works are still considered for inclusion on the nonprofit’s mural map.

Meanwhile, at Haywood Street, Combs continues his nonprofit’s fundraising campaign. Despite a strong wave of support, one of the critiques he often comes across is the very use of funds for such a project. Combs notes that all money raised for the fresco is independent of the congregation’s annual budget. Nevertheless, some still suggest the dollars could be put toward more useful programs.

Combs acknowledges that art will not save the world, that it will not feed the hungry, that it will not house those without homes. “And yet, that need for beauty, for inspiration, for awe, I would argue, is a fundamental tenet of being a human being,” he says. “And we in every way as a ministry want to say, ‘Actually, the full spectrum of being a human being and experiencing the world should be available to all of us.’”

To donate to the Haywood Street Congregation’s fresco project, visit To learn more about the Appalachian Mural Trail, visit


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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