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....
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."
"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.
See much more from the Poe Mill Village murals in the Photo Gallery below (Courtesy Josh Tremper)