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Alabama artist leads volunteers in bringing joy, creativity to Marion

Excited voices and laughter rang in the air as community volunteers, led by Tres Taylor and his paintbrush, transformed a blank white wall in downtown Marion into a magical tale of hope and light. It’s part of Taylor’s effort to start a “Revolution of Joy” in Alabama’s Black Belt region.

“My vision has been to create a route of murals that would inspire tourists to travel to these little Black Belt towns,” said Taylor. “Art drives tourism and commerce. If I can be the seed that brings other artists to the area to create their own murals, it could be a great boon for the economies of the towns.”

On April 25-26, Taylor and 78 adults, students and children painted a 16-by-42-foot mural on the Teach for America building on Alabama Highway 14 in Marion. It’s the fifth in his Revolution of Joy series of murals that spans the Black Belt.

The mural, which Taylor titled “Birdsong,” celebrates nature and learning through art and storytelling. In the painted tale, a visitor to the village teaches the townspeople the magic of listening using the simple things in nature, like trees, sunflowers and birdsong.

“I always try to create a story around the town,” said Taylor, a Selma folk artist. “As the home of Marion Institute and Judson College, Marion is known as a college town, and Earth Day was April 22, so the theme brings those elements together by showing that nature has a lot to teach us.”

Tres Taylor is leading “Revolution of Joy” with murals in Alabama’s Black Belt from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Painting the mural is somewhat like staying within the lines of a coloring book, Taylor said. He traced the design on the wall before the two-day event. Then, like a conductor, Taylor directed the volunteers as they painted their assigned portion of the wall.

As part of the Earth Day emphasis, the children created signs that read, “Please don’t litter.” Every volunteer received a packet of sunflower seeds to plant at home as a reminder of the story behind the painting.

“I like to connect an activity with the story of every mural. It’s like bringing art to life,” Taylor said.

The “Revolution of Joy” series is a team effort between Taylor and Can’d Aid, a Colorado-based nonprofit that works to provide access to and cultivate a love of art, music and culture in rural communities.

Joining them as a local partner in coordinating the Marion mural project was Perry County nonprofit Sowing Seeds of Hope (SSOH). This organization served as boots on the ground, spreading the word about the event and rallying residents to try their hand at art. SSOH coordinated efforts to clean and wash the wall to prepare it for the mural.

Frances Ford said the event was a “great way” to bring the community together.

“We wanted to come alongside Tres because it was something we can all do to improve our community,” said Ford, SSOH executive director. “It was an opportunity not only for young people to determine if they have gifts or talents but for older individuals to come out and share their talent and wisdom as they mentor the younger generation. Anytime we can come together to uplift our community, it’s exciting.”

Terri Byrd, an SSOH board member, and her husband, Paul, were among the volunteer artists.

“It meant a lot to me to be part of this community event,” she said. “I think the mural is symbolic of the beauty of the area and the people. To be part of something that brings joy and spreads the word about the wonderful attributes of Perry County and the Alabama Black Belt is amazing.”

An idea blossoms

Taylor said the germ of the idea for the mural series dates back to 2007. But he launched the project years later after meeting Diana Ralston, executive director of Can’d Aid, and realizing they had a shared mission: beautifying communities.

“My idea was to find a route through the Black Belt that would go from one side of the state to the other,” Taylor said. “I picked Highway 14, which starts in Mississippi and ends on the Georgia side of the state.”

Since forming their partnership in 2019, Taylor and Can’d Aid have worked with volunteers to create two “Revolution of Joy” murals in Selma, one in Greensboro and another in Eutaw.

While Taylor is the expert who helps volunteers create the murals, Can’d Aid provides the paint, brushes, tarps and supplies. During the pandemic, the organization has included masks and hand sanitizer.

“We all need more joy,” said Ralston. “Tres just exudes this exuberance, love, joy and community connectivity. His murals are not only a great way to beautify a town, but they bring community together. When you pass that mural later, you remember working side by side with your neighbor to paint it.”

A latecomer

Taylor was an adult before he discovered his true calling as an artist.

“I was raised around artists all my life,” said Taylor, noting that his brother and sister are artists. “There was something deep inside me that wanted to create, but I didn’t think I had the talent, so I ended up in science. I loved it, but it wasn’t my passion.”

In 1998, Taylor, a biochemist at the University of San Diego at the time, spent his Christmas vacation with relatives in Alabama. During the trip, he decided to visit some of the state’s folk artists.

“These are guys who never had an art lesson in their life,” said Taylor. “I was so amazed by what they were doing and captured by the spirit of their art.”

Taylor said those artists showed him that “you don’t have to have years of experience to create art.”

Taylor said he picked up a paintbrush for the first time on Jan. 10, 1999. The canvas was a piece of discarded wood he found in front of Balboa Park in San Diego.

“It was very primitive and childlike, but it was so cathartic. I was touching a place deep inside me,” he said.

“I picked up the paintbrush and never put it down. I was infected with the drive to make art and couldn’t stop. I had so much art on the floor of my house that one time I had to go out the window to go to work.”

Taylor quit his job 18 months later, moved to Birmingham and made art his full-time career. With the recent success of the “Revolution of Joy” series, he moved in 2020 to Selma, in the heart of the Black Belt.

“I’ve had an amazing 20 years of success,” Taylor said. “The joy of being able to make art, make a living and support my family has been incredible. Now, in what I call the fourth quarter of my life, it’s important that I do something for communities. That’s why we moved to Selma so we can be more involved in the community and the Black Belt.”

The Marion mural is the first of three “Revolution of Joy” projects this spring. Taylor will lead volunteers in painting a mural in Camden on May 8-9. The date of the Greenville mural event has not been set.

“Art can heal; it healed me,” Taylor said. “I think it heals not only us, but it can heal the community. When you bring people to a wall, it breaks down barriers because people are laughing and having conversations. If we discover this joy within ourselves, it will create a revolution and will lead to change that’s good for the community and good for each individual.”

For more information about Taylor and his “Revolution of Joy” project, visit https://www.trestaylor.com/shop. Taylor plans to post the story behind his newest mural on his website. Learn about Can’d Aid and sign up to help paint future murals at https://candaid.org/.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)