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Artist With Louisville Roots Returns Home To Help Paint Civil Rights Mural

A mural on the East side of the Nia Center building as seen on Aug. 18, 2020.
A mural on the East side of the Nia Center building as seen on Aug. 18, 2020.

Charlie Nunn believes in the power of art and, specifically, murals. They can “change the landscape of the neighborhood,” and express big ideas, Nunn says.

Taking a break from painting, he stands in front of a mural-in-progress, stretching nearly the full height of the East side of the Nia Center in West Louisville. He’s been working with a few other muralists on a four-part series of large-scale painted works.

The series is called “I AM.” 

The mural in Louisville is the second installment in the series. The Metro Government's Commission on Public Art signed off on it last week.

For Nunn, it’s a homecoming. 

“It's cool to be home,” said Nunn, who was born in Louisville.

“To come back and be able to give back things I've learned in my time in New York”  — he moved to NYC in 2003 to “pursue a career in sign painting and mural painting.”

The Louisville mural recreates an image captured by photographer Danny Lyon, who gave his blessing for this artwork. The image is from the March on Washington, in August 1963, and features two Black men singing

“We've been looking at a lot of photographs from the Civil Rights Era because it really speaks to the moment now, the reality of the difficulty to speak to issues and the resistance that's met [with],” said Jared Diaz, a painter working with Nunn on the mural series. “That kind of shared dialogue, you know, almost 60 years later, it's magical.”

Diaz thinks that some people might focus on any violence that breaks out at a protest, or framing these protests as riots, to avoid talking about the very issues that brought people out of their homes during a pandemic and into the streets.

“This is my way to exercise my voice,” he says, adding that he had a recent neck injury that has kept him from the “frontlines” of the protests for the moment. 

Nunn hopes the image will bring “strength to the community.”  

“Hopefully, it'll give people faith and like 'Yo, we can do this,'" he says. "Just like anything in life, this is gonna be hard work and you're gonna hit a lot of roadblocks, but you can't stop.”

Thefirst mural of the series was painted in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, hometown of Darius Dennis, another artist involved in this effort. It depicts an image of a Black man at a sanitation workers strike in 1968 wearing a sign around his neck that reads: “I am a man.” 

Dennis, who has been “painting my whole life,” says this series is a “BIPOC-led effort to make powerful, impactful art.”

“We’re looking at what a radical painting is… to tell a narrative and speak on a narrative as the country tries” to reckon with its past and address issues of cultural equity, Dennis says. 

The first two installments were “photos of the past,” and the next two will be “photos of the present,” speaking to events and humanitarian issues. Dennis says they’re considering  different “walls” in various cities for the next mural. 

Nunn is particularly excited to do this work in his hometown because he got to meet with some local artists interested in murals and share a few tricks of the trade. 

“It wouldn't be fair not to share the knowledge,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t be where he is in his career if others hadn’t done the same for him. 

Nunn hopes to return to Louisville in the fall. He'll be participating in a workshop and mentorship program with local Black artists interested in pursuing mural work, a collaboration with Louisville Visual Art, the Community Foundation of Louisville, and Louisville muralist and painter Ashley Cathey to help the next generation of Black muralists tell their own stories.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.