First artists of the Water Works mural at Enmarket Arena aim to open public art pathways

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A canal of winding blue water carries a small boat through a collection of colorful doors and a beach maze that leads to a cluster of cobblestones in the new Water Works Mural just outside of the recently-opened Enmarket Arena.

Xavier “Zay” Hutchins, Nae’Keisha Jones, Alfredo Martinez and Brian MacGregor are the team of artists behind this creation, adding another piece of public art to their arsenal of beloved works that adorn the walls, fences and businesses of Savannah.

Now together, they’ve created the first part of what will become the largest asphalt mural in Chatham County and one of the largest asphalt murals in Georgia.

Teamwork makes the dream work

After the City of Savannah announced that it was accepting proposals for the project in August 2021, it was a mad scramble of artists reaching out to one another to see who was available and interested in forming a team. “It was like a teacher giving out a group project and you try to snatch up who you want to work it,” Jones said.

Xavier Hutchins (left), Alfredo Martinez, Nae'Keisha Jones and Brian MacGregor at the site of the Water Works asphalt mural.

Xavier Hutchins (left), Alfredo Martinez, Nae’Keisha Jones and Brian MacGregor at the site of the Water Works asphalt mural.

Jones admitted she was a little nervous, but excited and confident in the proposal due to their mural experience. When the MPC Historic Sites and Monuments Commission reviewed their design, they had very few notes for the new team; they loved it.

The theme for the murals is pathways which the team recognized as a broad interpretation. But the circumstances of the project led them to incorporate the fact that this was a collaborative mural.

“Because we are a group of different individuals, rather than just a single artist with a single vision, the subject of our mural is different paths coming together, and different perspectives coming together. And I think that works,” Martinez said.

More: Nae’Keisha Jones hopes her art will inspire others to ‘do something’ for their community

The mural started with a compilation of ideas in their Zoom meetings which turned into a literal interpretation of pathways. It is sectioned into four different parts with a canal, doors, a maze and cobblestones at the end.

Overhead drone image of the Water Works asphalt mural.

Overhead drone image of the Water Works asphalt mural.

The maze also acts as a game of hopscotch to make the mural more interactive and fun for younger kids, a decision that was encouraged by a fun visit from Savannah Mayor Van Johnson. “We had roughly talked about hopscotch, but we hadn’t solidified it. He’s like, ‘Oh, this, this would be perfect for hopscotch there.’ And he starts even acting it out on the mural; he turns into an eight-year-old right in front of us,” MacGregor shared.

While each artist had a section that they essentially claimed, the painting process was very much like the brainstorming process: a team effort.

“He [Hutchins] had an idea for how to do the river. And we were like, ‘Yo, you’re killing it with the river. Keep doing it. Let me know how I can help you, but that’s all you.’ And Nae’Keisha really took it in with the doors, Brian with the maze and me with the trees. But that being said, every single one us worked on every single one of those sections,” Martinez said.

Artists Nae'Keisha Jones, Alfredo Martinez, and Brian MacGregor work on a mural on the ground just outside the new enmarket Arena. Xavier Hutchins is the fourth artist with the team that designed the mural.

Artists Nae’Keisha Jones, Alfredo Martinez, and Brian MacGregor work on a mural on the ground just outside the new enmarket Arena. Xavier Hutchins is the fourth artist with the team that designed the mural.

Learning curve

This isn’t the first time Martinez and MacGregor have worked with other artists to complete a mural. Martinez worked with local artists Adolfo Hernandez and Abe Arregui to complete a mural at the Perry Lane Hotel, and MacGregor painted a mural commissioned by Coach’s Corner in partnership with house painter Heath Larson.

More: He’s all over Savannah, but you may not have seen (or will ever see) the work of Fredo Martinez

For Jones and Hutchins, going into the collaborative process was a first-time experience.

“I kind of came into it deferring to Brian and Alfredo being that they were more prolific in the city with doing murals, and especially with something of this scale and size,” Hutchins said.

Artists Nae'Keisha Jones, Alfredo Martinez, and Brian MacGregor work on a mural on the ground just outside the new Enmarket Arena. Xavier Hutchins is the fourth artist with the team that designed the mural.

Artists Nae’Keisha Jones, Alfredo Martinez, and Brian MacGregor work on a mural on the ground just outside the new Enmarket Arena. Xavier Hutchins is the fourth artist with the team that designed the mural.

But when it came to working on the asphalt, all of them were on a level playing field as none of them had worked on the medium before. MacGregor headed the research and watched YouTube videos on what materials to buy and what worked and didn’t work for other artists.

More: Local artists, musicians make space for creatives with Sunday Supper Art and Music Exhibition

It was a lot of painting over sections multiple times to make the color solid, preserving what they could of the over 40 gallons of paint they used in total and developing spatial awareness so they wouldn’t accidentally step on someone’s fresh paintwork — which they did a few times.

“I think having the design layout already completely helped us. … We free flowed and crossed over and helped each other in different areas. It was natural and organic, and it kind of made me wish that all my future collaborations happen the same way. So, I may be a little bit spoiled.”

Artist Nae'Keisha Jones with her canvas on the construction fencing on Bull near 31st street. Naekeisha’s work is a part of the Starland Mural Project Fence Art.

Artist Nae’Keisha Jones with her canvas on the construction fencing on Bull near 31st street. Naekeisha’s work is a part of the Starland Mural Project Fence Art.

Jones said she learned different techniques for future projects through this experience. Her projects also usually deal with one client, so working with the city gave her more insight into the process.

“Having to go to the board meetings and seeing the stuff that comes at you … that was definitely new because I’m never in that space. I’m never in those rooms where these types of projects are happening. So it was like, ‘Oh, OK, at least with the next project, I’ll have a little more like knowledge going in.”

A possible tipping point for public art

For many years, there has been a call for more public art in Savannah with many local artists working tirelessly to fulfill Savannah’s reputation as an art town. These four artists have been an integral part of the conversation with projects like Clinton Edminster’s Starland Fence Art project. However, a lack of space, opportunities and a rocky relationship with the Historic Site and Monument Commission has caused hurdles in this endeavor.

Artist Brian MacGregor with his canvas on the construction fencing on Bull near 38th Street. His work is a part of the Starland Mural Project Fence Art.

Artist Brian MacGregor with his canvas on the construction fencing on Bull near 38th Street. His work is a part of the Starland Mural Project Fence Art.

Hutchins, Jones, Martinez and MacGregor hope the mural project creates a crossroads for public art in the city. They all agree that the approval process for public art needs to be easier and faster.

More: Savannah’s art scene was strong in 2021. Here are five lessons and challenges for 2022.

“At the end of the day, we basically officially, unofficially, have been calling ourselves the guinea pigs. We’re the first group up … On a bigger scale, I see this entire project as a foot in the door,” Martinez said. “With the city kind of testing the sort of thing out, I think the city of Savannah is trying to move forward, trying to catch up to what places like Atlanta, Miami, St. Pete, all these other areas around us, near us, have been doing as far as developing a culture that really fosters public art, and really places that importance on it.”

They also recognize that money is a big motivator and hope that the project brings in enough foot traffic that displays the economic impact of public art and pushes the city to implement a public art budget into the annual budget.

Xavier Hutchins, right, interacts with supporters before during a Sunday Supper at the ABZ Gallery in Savannah Mall.

Xavier Hutchins, right, interacts with supporters before during a Sunday Supper at the ABZ Gallery in Savannah Mall.

With the mural complete, the team said they’ve been getting calls for different projects. Hutchins has reopened his studio ABZ Studio Gallery and is focused on bringing back his monthly Sunday Supper event for April.

More: West Savannah quilter Emma Freeman Williams honored with mural at Urban Tree Nursery

Martinez recently completed a mural for the incoming gym center AMPT Savannah and will be working with the Deep Center on a mural to celebrate the end of the school year.

MacGregor recently finished an indoor mural at Spin City Laundromat on Victory Drive, and Jones has an outdoor mural at the upcoming The Culturist Union coffee shop that people will be able to see when it opens in spring.

Laura Nwogu is the quality of life reporter for Savannah Morning News. Contact her at [email protected] Twitter: @lauranwogu_

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: First artist team for Enmarket Arena Water Works mural talk public art

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