With a spring-like high temperature of 69 degrees in this December 2021 file photo, snow was not on the mind of most area residents. But it was for artist Marci Berkhimer, who was painting a snowy scene on the window of Johnson City Brewing Company in downtown Johnson City. Berkhimer has painted seasonal holiday windows in several spots downtown this year.
Johnson City has commissioned an artist from Massachusetts to paint a mural on the four walls under the I-26 overpass at North Roan Street.
A mural at the corner of Market and Buffalo streets was produced by the artist DAAS.
With a spring-like high temperature of 69 degrees in this December 2021 file photo, snow was not on the mind of most area residents. But it was for artist Marci Berkhimer, who was painting a snowy scene on the window of Johnson City Brewing Company in downtown Johnson City. Berkhimer has painted seasonal holiday windows in several spots downtown this year.
Johnson City has commissioned an artist from Massachusetts to paint a mural on the four walls under the I-26 overpass at North Roan Street.
A mural at the corner of Market and Buffalo streets was produced by the artist DAAS.
Although the projects accumulated a combined total of approximately 200 applications, only a handful of local artists from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia ultimately applied to paint murals on two major thoroughfares in Johnson City.
Seven regional artists, including two from Knoxville, applied to produce a mural on the side of a building on Buffalo Street, which ultimately went to an artist based in Texas. Likewise, just four regional artists applied to produce murals on a series of walls under the Interstate 26 overpass on North Roan Street, which ultimately went to an artist from Massachusetts.
As officials aim to beautify spaces around Johnson City, residents have wondered why the city doesn’t specifically choose local artists for large projects, a decision that can often come down to the complexity of the installation and the number of submissions the selection committee receives.
One barrier is that large projects, which can tally more than 100 applications, oftentimes receive a limited number of submissions from local artists. Judges also look for an established background in public art.
“The thing with murals is that it requires a particular skillset,” said Cole Hendrix, chair of Johnson City Public Art’s mural committee. “We need you to have worked on a large exterior masonry-based wall and be comfortable working with paints and sealants and all kinds of things that murals require.”
Complex projects can also require the use of scissor or bucket lifts, which call for specialized insurance that the artists must pay themselves.
When the Johnson City Public Art Committee commissions artwork, it issues a request for qualifications, which involves gathering resumes, examples of past work and references. A committee then narrows that list of portfolios to three semi-finalists and pays them to produce a potential design, which those artists present to members of the committee.
Hendrix said there have been multiple projects in Johnson City completed by artists with local ties. Asheville artist Ian Brownlee, who produced the mural “Wildabout” on a wall by Atlantic Ale House in downtown Johnson City, for example, has family in the area, and Caitlin Maupin, who installed a mural at The Mall at Johnson City, was an art student at East Tennessee State University.
In partnership with the Johnson City Development Authority, Johnson City Public Art also commissioned a mural in the downtown breezeway at 216 E. Main St., which was limited to artists from the region. Nine people applied, and the judges ultimately chose Marci Berkhimer, an artist from Roan Mountain, to produce the artwork.
Although in the past local artists have felt left out, Berkhimer said, the city is creating opportunities.
“We’re like small business owners,” Berkhimer said. “We do our work, we promote it, we try to get it out there. And having opportunities in our own community is a blessing.”
Berkhimer has lived in Roan Mountain for 25 years. She’s a stay-at-home mom who turned art into her side hustle, which has allowed her to meet many other fellow creators.
Local artists don’t begrudge the work of outside artists, she said, but they do want the city to dip into the local pool of talent as much as possible.
Aside from the mural on East Main Street, Berkhimer has also had work featured on large store windows in downtown Johnson City and on banners that the city has posted on lampposts in Founders Park.
She’s also applied for a new mural the public art committee is commissioning with Blue Plum Gives Back on Commerce Street, which will celebrate the music history of the region. The work has so far attracted applications from roughly 10 people from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
“I personally am really excited for these opportunities that are coming up,” Berkhimer said.
Stephen Simmerman, a graphic designer and illustrator, recently moved to Kingsport from Jonesborough, where he grew up before moving away for about 20 years. Overall, he’s pleased with the public art cropping up in Johnson City.
Although he’s cautiously optimistic about the availability of community-based projects and appreciates the skill of non-regional creators, Simmerman said he would prefer to see local artists produce local art, especially if it explores a theme unique to the region.
The murals going up on North Roan Street, for example, center on regional ecosystems and the city’s desire to promote itself as a destination for outdoor recreation.
“I wish the artist the best, and I hope that when I drive by it’ll feel like it’s the right fit … for capturing the area,” Simmerman said.
Like Berkhimer, Simmerman has also submitted an application for the project on Commerce Street.
Jason Flack, another local artist who is a native of Johnson City, said he appreciates the efforts of members of the Public Art Committee, but he does believe there’s room for constructive criticism.
He hopes to see more collaborations between local artists on big projects. Flack also wants to ensure that when non-regional artists do come to Johnson City to complete projects, they take the time to see local artwork.
“How cool would that be — an artist from Utah or an artist from Massachusetts or an artist from Canada or an artist from Louisiana comes up here and they go, ‘Oh, who did that?’” Flack said. “It’s a win-win.”
“Johnson City is a hub of talent that other areas can know about, too,” he added. “Right now, it doesn’t do the same. Now, people touch down, make money and then leave.”
David Floyd covers Johnson City government, Johnson City schools and Ballad Health for the Johnson City Press. He grew up in East Tennessee and graduated from ETSU, where he was the executive editor of the school paper.
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