It all happened while sitting at a red light at the corner of No Man's Drive and Desolation Way. I was on my way to serve meals for a volunteer project, which was taking me through a side of town I don't normally travel. This area is not a nice area; everything is grey, tattered, desolate and broken. Those same words - I'm assuming - could be used to describe much of the folks who live here. The neighborhood is a washed up mill village, no longer on the city's map of economic engines. It's an eye-sore to those passing through. It's why -- in the 60-seconds I was stopped at a red light here -- the Color of LIGHT jumped out at me and instantly grabbed my attention.
Across the street, on the side of a gas station, I saw the most beautiful work of art. At first, and probably because of my surroundings, I assumed it was graffiti. But that was the split-second judgement I initially made. Quickly, my eyes adjusted and I realized this was not graffiti - not at all, in fact -- but rather the work of something so much more. Along the side of the gas station stretched a mural of row houses, with beautiful white flowers dangling out of the sky above. I wondered What was this? Who was behind this work? and Why? The clock was ticking away on my time at the red light when I looked up to the gas station's roof. There stood a man .... painting. Oh my gosh, there he is. That's the artist! He's working as I sit here at this red light and imagine his story! Another split-second passed and the light turned green. My foot instinctively pressed on the gas and my car carried me away. But my mind remained on that corner for the rest of the day. I could not let this go; I wanted to know this story for I knew immediately I was staring LIGHT in the face. Days later, I returned to the gas station.
Adam Schrimmer moved to the area following a stint in Miami as the Art Director for the Miami New Times. Though the work was satisfying, life in the fast lane was not. An internet search for one of "the best places to raise a family" brought Schrimmer and his family to Greenville, SC. Now working as an independent graphic artist, Shrimmer moves about in a few of the art circles in town. It's how his name was mentioned as part of a particular revitalization project in the Poe Mill Village. He was originally approached by organizers of the Poe Mill Neighborhood Association, who asked Schrimmer to give them a proposal to paint a mural on two of the buildings there to which he obliged. But there wasn't really any money to pay Schrimmer. The project was simply a dream for some who live in this area. Nearly a year and a half passed before talks moved to action, due much in part to Schrimmer's willingness to get involved and help secure some grant money to fund the project. I later learned that the grant money really just covers the cost of paint and supplies; Schrimmer's time and talent has been more or less donated.... and he's been at this for 6 months! But I'm getting ahead of myself....
People who live in this area know who their people are. Outsiders are immediately recognized as such. So on the day Schrimmer pulled up in his black pick-up truck and started pulling out his painting supplies, a crowd of brooding men approached: Druggies, Drunks, Pimps and other labels Schrimmer didn't want to think about. They reeked of alcohol and other fumes Schrimmer was yet to identify. They boldly ask him if he was going to paint this wall? Is he going to be here every day? What sort of painting is he going to do? Schrimmer replied with simple one-word answers and continued to unload his truck, set up shop, preparing to paint. The Crowd stood their ground and stared at Schrimmer the rest of the day, watching him, waiting for him to make a wrong move. To say his first day onsite was intimidating would be an understatement but he forged ahead.
The community had been made aware of the project in advance. The Neighborhood Association held a big party, inviting everyone out to help launch the project by priming the wall. About 100 people showed up - families and children -- and together they prepped and painted. The intention was both to do something positive for the Youth, and to garner community participation to help foster a "buy-in" on the idea. It was a huge success. But the reality is, during the week, on a daily basis, those people are not the ones hanging out on this corner. This was The Crowd's domain.
Each day continued to present itself with new challenges. There was trash to be picked up -- leftovers from the endless drunks and druggies who camp here overnight -- before Schrimmer could begin to work. There was more harassment from The Crowd, giving him a hard time about each stroke he took as if suddenly they'd become Art Critics in their delirium. There were fights on the corner that sometimes Schrimmer could not ignore. Like the time he witnessed a man viciously beating a woman. "I wasn't here to get involved. It's not any of my business. But when I see a guy beating up a woman. I just can't sit back and not do anything. So I called 911 that day." It was not the last time Schrimmer called 911....
One morning, as he pulled his pickup truck into the parking lot, he saw a man lying face down on the ground in front of where he was to paint. This was not an unusual sight by any means so Schrimmer didn't think much of it until he got out of his truck. The Crowd was there, and one of the men nodded to Schrimmer and asked, "You got a phone?" Schrimmer replied, "Yeah, I got a phone. What's wrong with him? Has anyone been over there to check on him?" referring to the lifeless body. Schrimmer went to the man and noted he was still breathing, but barely. Schrimmer dialed 911 and soon the Police and EMS swarmed in; it instantly became a very big scene. The cops interrogated Schrimmer in a quasi-threatening manner. They asked what did he know about the man; what happened to him? Aggravated, he told the detective, "I have no idea! Why don't you go ask those guys over there. They were all standing around just staring at the guy when I arrived. I'm the one who actually called for help". An hour and a half passed and Schrimmer still hadn't painted a drop. The lifeless man was hauled away in the ambulance and The Crowd disappeared. Schrimmer was left sitting there staring at the wall, agitated, trying to decide whether or not he was even going to paint at all that day when an old lady walked up to him, catching him by surprise. She said, "I've lived here 50 years in this house. I see your pretty flowers on this wall. I want you to add some flowers to the side of the building so I can see them from my porch". Schrimmer apologetically explained, "No. I'm not going to be painting on the side of the building. That isn't part of the project. I don't have permission to do that." The old lady hung her head in disappointment. She complimented him on his work and walked away. Schrimmer thought about her simple request and thought twice about his answer. It was just a few flowers on the side of the building so she could see them from her front porch. There is so little to look at in this neighborhood, what on earth would honoring her request hurt? Would someone honestly complain and say that wasn't part of the deal? Suddenly inspired to paint, Schrimmer reached for his paintbrush and wrapped a vine of flowers around the building.
That afternoon, he went home emotionally spent. He had experienced such a wide range of feelings throughout the day starting with worry over the lifeless man, moving into aggravation after the police seemed less than thankful for his call, to feeling proud of going with his gut and doing what he felt was right by painting the flowers on the edge of the building. Days later, the old lady's daughter came down to the mural, grabbed Schrimmer without saying a word and pulled him into a bear hug. Her eyes watering she said, "My Mama comes outside and cries everyday when she sees those flowers. You are blessed, You have a gift. We've never seen anybody like you before." Grateful yet embarrassed, Shrimmer didn't know what to say. "What do you say to that? There's no way of knowing how what you're doing is going to affect people."
So six months and two sweeping murals later, Schrimmer has gained some perspective on Poe Mill and the people who haunt these streets. He's become friendly with the neighbors and in the good graces of community leaders. But perhaps more importantly he's come to know The Crowd and their individual personalities. They are the sum of their past, and while part of that include things they don't want anyone to know about, they've showed their humanity to Schrimmer all along the way - he feels it now - they've come to know him too, and appreciate what he's done. They greet him each day with handshakes and nods of appreciation and approval.
It's more than just about a painting. It's reminded them to have pride in their community, in their history, in their past; and to get what you want takes hard work. Back during the beginning of the project, Schrimmer painted over some graffiti on the wall that read "RIP 40". A member of The Crowd quickly stated, "You're going to put that back, right?" Schrimmer sensed this was more of a demand rather than a question, and he obliged by later working it into his design. He painted it several times, but each time it did not meet The Crowd's approval. Frustated, Schrimmer painted over it and left it blank until he was nearing the end of the project. RIP 40 weighed on him. He knew somehow he had to repaint it in a way that was congruent with the mural and honor "40" - whomever he was - and please The Crowd. He knew if he could get it right, it would somehow serve as a secret handshake between him and the men who'd hovered over his shoulders for months. Finally, after his final pass, his toughest critic from The Crowd approached and nodded in approval. "You got it right! That's it."
The goal of the project was to represent the sentiment: “Cherish Yesterday, Dream Tomorrow, and Create Today”. The community organizers wanted something that would remind people to remember their past, dream new dreams, and start creating it now. To this, Schrimmer says he's so glad he said Yes, even though it has not been an easy road. Thinking back to that first day when he pulled up in his truck and faced the firing squad, he admits he was scared and not quiet sure what he'd gotten himself into. And many days since, he's had to dig deep to find the inspiration to keep going. He's often found it in the lyrics of some of his favorite music, which he plays repeatedly on his iPod while he works. A particular stanza in the song "We Made it" by rappers Busta Rhymes & Linkin Park states
"Look in case you misunderstand exactly what I'm building
Things that I could leave for my children (children) children (children)"
This gets Schrimmer motivated, reminding him of the bigger picture. "This is what I love to do! To create a visual based off words -- that's storytelling! It's about selflessness. At the end of the day, I want as many people as humanly possible to enjoy it." Another favorite song is by a reggae artist, Mavado, called "Hope and Pray" in which the message is about having a light shine and show you the way, to leave grudgeful, dark things behind you and walk a straight path and never stray (paraphrased).
I knew it the second I saw Schrimmer's work. There was LIGHT here. It's not about the artist but about the LIGHT that is being shined through his handiwork -- showing them the way. Honor the past but leave it behind and walk straight into the future of your dreams... and start creating it now.
When I asked Schrimmer to reflect on what this project has meant to him, he says, "When I started this project, I didn't know what to expect. It turned out to be a life-changing experience that I am so grateful for. I want to personally thank Kwadjo Campbell and Rashida Jeffers-Campbell [of the Poe Mill Neighborhood Association] for this opportunity; and a special thanks to "The Crowd" for being out there with me in the elements everyday, offering words of encouragement and critique of my work until we got it just right. To all of you in the vibrant Poe Mill community, you have elevated not just my work as an artist, but my spirit as well. I am better human being because of all of you."
"Cherish Yesterday, Dream Tomorrow, Create Today" -- It's a message for anyone, really, no matter on which street corner you hover.
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See much more from the Poe Mill Village murals in the Photo Gallery below (Courtesy Josh Tremper)
It's funny how when you're younger - like in college - you don't really look too far into the future to imagine all the trials and tribulations that are surely coming your way. Back in those days, you're so full of LIFE - ready to charge into the world and make your own way; no one really stops to think about the downside of 'growing up'.
When I was in college, I didn't contemplate life's frailties. I didn't really think ahead to the fact that some couples would get divorced, some careers would fail, some friendships wouldn't last, or someone's daughter would get cancer... and die. Nope, I never thought about that one. Until it happened.
Star Nuckolls was the first child born to my college friends, Kari and Steve. I never met Star as I had moved away and had lost touch with so many people after graduation. I didn't know about this young, vibrant child moving about in the world shining her LIGHT wherever she went. But that's how people describe Star -- as a shining light of energy. A child who never sat still. A child who lit up a room when she entered.
My husband and I had moved over 1000 miles away and keeping track of all my friends' accomplishments and successes usually came in the form of a phone call with a few close friends who'd quickly give me the recap of what's going on with everyone else back home. Jenny moved to Dallas and is working as an engineer; Rob and Sherri just bought a new house - it's really big; Karen and Joe just had their third child, she's still working full-time- can you believe it?
These are all great conversations until you get to this: Steve and Kari's daughter has Stage 4 cancer and it's not looking good. What?? I myself didn't have children yet so I could not fully grasp this scenario. My friend told me about a "blog" Kari had started where she posted updates daily to keep everyone informed (mind you, this was waaaay before Blogs were even a thing). I went to the site to find out more and I didn't come out of my office for 3 hours. I read every post. Star's story did that to you -- she captivated you.
Star was diagnosed with a type of childhood kidney cancer in 2004. Of all the childhood cancers to get, Star's kind was the most favorable -- the one with the highest survival rate. 90% of children with this type of cancer survive. Star did not.
I won't bog you down with details of Star's cancer treatment because no matter how you write it - it sucks. Of course there are beautiful stories of beautiful people who emerge all along the way (doctors, nurses, fellow patients, community) and all of that was certainly true in Star's case ... but in the end, a child dies and that's never a beautiful experience. But what did happen throughout Star's journey was a LIGHT that shined bright and brought people together. Star had an unusual way about her. She would go to anyone; she had no fear; she had no sense of prejudice. She simply loved everybody, and everybody loved her. As a result, entire communities came out of nowhere to lend their support.
During Star's illness, friends and family sold purple stars for $15 to raise money for Star's medical fund. Before long, there were purple stars in flowerbeds, in lawns, in windows of businesses -- there were purple stars everywhere
as a sign of solidarity and prayer. Within Steve and Kari's network of friends, people came together to learn about their needs, raise money, hold prayer vigils, and give support to the family. People -- strangers
-- donated money to help offset the enormous costs of fighting cancer. Much of that money was never spent as Star's time expired before the funds could all be used. Today that money is in a foundation in Star's name, which in turn helps people in Star's community who are fighting their own cancer battles. Kari also used some of the money to establish a Scholarship fund at our college for Greek students. The Greek community was another group that stepped up with donations, support, and prayer during Star's illness, and Kari's never forgotten their generosity. Star's LIGHT even reached the politicians. The State Capitol in Texas delivered a proclamation in Star's name, and a flag was flown in Washington D.C. in her honor. Throughout it all, Kari continued with her daily posts about Star's routine, her attitude, her chemo regimen, Kari's own fears and concerns. Before it was all over, Kari's "blog-that-was-before-it's-time" had over 1-million hits, reaching every continent in the world. When I asked Kari why does she think this happened? how
did this happen? She replied, "I do not know -- so many kids have cancer".
This is just what Star did. She was full of life -- even in the midst of dying -- and that just transmitted somehow. You can't explain how something like this happens. It just happens. You can't explain why children get cancer. They just do.
On the day of Star's funeral,
it was cold, cloudy, and rainy outside. Following the service, the family had a graveside burial. Just as Star was being laid into the ground, a double rainbow appeared. It was such an unusual sight -- a rainbow in that weather! Later, they learned the rainbows were caused by a phenomenon called a "Sun Pillar". By definition, Sun Pillars are shafts of light extending from the sun or other bright light sources. They’re caused by ice crystals drifting in the Earth’s air. Yes, Star's LIGHT was so bright it blazed through the sky as her spirit traveled upward. For Kari, this was a sign -- from Star -- from God -- that she was where she belonged. She was home.
It has been 10 years since Star Knuckolls died, but her legacy and LIGHT continues to shine. Star's younger sister, Saylor, was just 2-years old when Star died. Now she is 12 and has written and illustrated a children's book honoring her sister's story. Star loved a lot of people, but she didn't love anyone more than she loved her sister, Saylor. Her book is titled, My Shining Star.
Kari's own memoir will be released later this year. Kari will tell you she has come from the depths of hell and back. She's endured unimaginable heartbreak, divorce, depression, and fear. The books were not something Kari ever planned on doing, but as the journey unfolded, it became clear Star's LIGHT was guiding her, pushing her to move forward to share her story.
10 years later, Kari says the puzzle pieces that were so distorted before are starting to come together. Time has given her perspective and clarity... and peace. Kari says you have to have your eyes open to see the blessings in it all. God/Star speaks to her, but she says, "only if I'm quiet and listen for it"
. Kari's journey and Star's story have gone on to help so many others who are walking that same path. Mothers who are deep in despair; families who are torn apart by death; younger siblings who don't yet have the words to express their pain. Kari's words are weapons of healing for so many. Kari says she wants other parents who've lost a child to have a story they can relate to, so they too can find their way out. "It's easy to check out, to succumb to the depression. It's painful to keep going. Living is a choice you have to make. They have to take it day by day; sometimes minute by minute. I'm hoping my book will help those parents who are grieving. I want them to know there are people who love them and who need them here! There is hope. Keep going. God will speak to you; He will do it in all sorts of ways. Listen for Him."
Looking back, Kari is so thankful that God trusted her to be Star's mom -- even if it was only for 4 years, 2 months and 25 days. Kari says she'd rather have had those 4 years than none at all.
Today - February 7 - marks the 10 year anniversary of Star's death. Kari says this is the first time since Star died that she will actually be able to 'breathe' on this day. "I am grateful for the children's book, and for my book... good things are happening! I feel like Star is looking down and is proud of me... proud that I was able to hear the message. I heard her and I heard God.... and now I can give others encouragement and hope. Everything is temporary and I know I'll see her again one day. Until then, Star gives me strength. I will draw upon that strength and give it to others".
Tonight, when you gaze out at the stars that shine so bright, I'm certain you will see a shining LIGHT.
Her name is Star.
The Kari Smith's memoir is titled "Stars That Can Laugh" which comes from "The Little Prince":
"In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing. When you look at the sky at night...you -only you- will have stars that can laugh."