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New flower mural on East Main Street

Shea Cathey painting the flower mural, June 1, 2021 (photo by Peter Finkle)

Homeowner Jody Johnson found an anonymous note in her mailbox as I was writing this article about the flower mural on her fence.

“Every time I drive past the beautiful artwork you created on your fence it puts a smile on my face, no matter how I’m feeling or what I’m dealing with. Thank you for sharing some joy!"

I interviewed Johnson and the artist Shea Cathey. Their intention from the beginning was to uplift community members who pass by, which is why Cathey named the mural "Hope You Smile." Here is the story of their vision and how it came to life.

If you have driven, bicycled or walked on East Main Street during the past three months, you have probably seen a fence newly covered with bright, colorful flowers. Between COVID-19 and wildfire smoke in the Rogue Valley, this summer has been difficult! We have needed more bright moments in our days. This mural has been bringing smiles to faces and hearts since it was painted in June 2021.

I asked Johnson when she first envisioned the mural. She told me this story: “My husband Mark and I moved here three years ago. After moving here I missed my friends, so I started volunteering at the Senior Center, helping with lunches. That’s where I met Shea. She is wonderful, a really giving person, and very talented. I’m not sure Shea knows how talented she is. Shea was doing art lessons and projects with the senior citizens before COVID shut all that down. After they shut down lunches at the Senior Center, Shea and I stayed in touch."

Johnson was inspired by the colorful outdoor murals she saw during walks in the Fordyce neighborhood, and also indoors at La Casa del Pueblo restaurant. Knowing Shea Cathey was a talented artist, Johnson asked if she would paint something colorful and uplifting on the fence. Based on that simple guidance, Cathey drew an illustration – and Johnson loved it. With the illustration, Johnson got approval from the Mill Pond HOA and painting began.

Cathey is a humble artist. Shea Cathey grew up in a small Louisiana town. She has loved making art since early childhood. She took art classes in high school, and at 17 years of age had one of her paintings chosen for an exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York. When she got to college, she studied nursing and let the art go for a while.

I asked, "When did you start thinking of yourself as an artist?" Cathey replied, "There’s still a part of me that feels like I am pretending, even when I am teaching art classes, because I didn’t get a degree in art."

Cathey and her husband had lived all their lives in Louisiana. A combination of introspection and difficult life lessons led them to consider moving. They researched nationwide for a state with a good scope of practice for nurse practitioners (her husband's profession), a small town with a university, an open-minded area that supports art and artists, and finally a good school system for their four children. Where did they end up? Right here in Ashland.

Since moving to Ashland, Cathey has taught art classes through the Senior Center and OLLI, as well as in Bellview School classrooms and private lessons.

I was moved by Cathey's description of her deep emotional connection with her art students. “I enjoy teaching people art because people who say, ‘I’m not an artist, I can’t even draw a straight line,’ end up taking my course, really liking it, and being proud of themselves. That makes me so happy! It seems like an experience that everybody deserves."

When painting the fence, the small drawing Cathey created for Johnson was the template she worked from. The first step was sketching outlines of the flowers and leaves. Next came filling in the outlines with white paint, which acted as primer on the fence. Then came color – lots of color. Seen from across the street, the colors seem to flow together, to complement each other. At the same time, each bright flower seems to pop out of the fence on its own, saying "Look at me."

Do you know what kind of flowers these are? I didn't, so I asked Cathey. She told me she would call them ranunculus, or buttercups, though you could make an argument for peonies. I have peonies in my home garden and they don't quite match the mural. I had to look up photos of ranunculus. When I did, I thought, Yes…that's what the fence flowers are.

If you haven't seen the "Hope You Smile" mural yet, you will find it on East Main Street near the corner of Wightman Street. Another landmark is the National Guard Armory, location of the Tuesday Growers & Crafters Market, which is across the street from the mural.

I'd like to close with loving words from Johnson: "While Shea was painting, so many people stopped to tell her how they loved it – and they still do. Especially when the farmers market is happening across the street, I can’t tell you many people have told my husband and me: 'That makes us feel so happy.'"