The story behind Columbiana’s new mural

Published 12:20 pm Tuesday, November 30, 2021

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COLUMBIANA – A new mural in Columbiana made its official debut in November.

Located at 100 W College St., the mural is a collaborative effort between Columbiana Main Street, Shelby County High School art students, Bendy Knees Design, the Shelby County Arts Council and Jon Falkner State Farm.

Michelle Branson, Shelby County High School’s art teacher, initiated the project. After participating in Arts on Main, she was put into contact with members of the Columbiana Main Street board.

“That’s basically how it started,” Branson said. “I was really interested in doing a mural somewhere in town.”

Branson had a meeting in May with the board to decide when and where they would start the mural and how to raise funds for the project.

Finding a location was not the easiest task, Branson said.

“The whole thing was kind of a comedy of errors,” Branson said. “It started off, we didn’t have a ton of parameters for the design. We wanted to do it on a big white wall that’s across the street from where we ended up doing the mural.”

However, after sketching out the design and rendering it onto the building, Branson and Main Street realized the design was too small in comparison to the wall.

“We knew if we wanted it to be student-led, the students can’t get up on scissor lifts,” Branson said.

After scrapping the old location, they reached out to the business owner of the current wall. Jon Falkner, owner of the Farmers Insurance building, ended up “bailing [us] out,” Branson said.

“I had planned on doing (a mural) anyway at some point, so I was all for it,” Falkner said.

Next, she reached out to Bendy Knees, two Birmingham-based artists who Branson thought would be beneficial for her students to work with.

Bendy Knees is made up of artists Jordan Thompson and Rachel “Levi” Levinson. They have officially been operating Bendy Knees full-time since August of 2020, but have been artists for much longer.

“I started to paint on my bedroom walls at the age of 6 with puff paint,” Levinson said. “Which I joke around with my parents, like little did they know I would be professionally painting walls 20 years later. I was just very lucky and privileged to have parents who were really supportive of my artistic endeavors pretty much throughout life.”

Levinson’s father went to Shelby County High School, and her parents recently moved back to Columbiana from New Mexico.

After doing murals and signs at Trader Joe’s and local pieces at restaurants, Levinson eventually found herself doing full murals, and it progressed from there.

Around six years ago, Thompson and Levinson began dating, and that’s when Thompson started to help with the process.

“Our biggest thing is just to empower students, especially other girls and other women,” Levinson said. “You can do this, it’s not easy, but it’s definitely doable. Our motto in life and with our business is that we aren’t in competition with anyone. We hope everyone is successful, and there’s definitely room for everyone at the table. So if we have the tips and tricks or the trials and tribulations of what works and what doesn’t, we’re definitely going to pass that off to anyone that we can.”

Bendy Knees helped design and render the mural, keeping the local residents and area in mind.

“Any time we do community-based pieces, it’s really important for us to have community say in what we are doing,” Levinson said. “So we wanted to make sure it was still authentic and our style, but also representative of Columbiana. We kind of went towards the water flowing lines, the greenery for the farm, symbolism for the sun. But that’s also the fun part about it being abstract is you can create your own interpretation.”

Levinson and Thompson also visited the class beforehand for a “classroom day” where they talked to the students about what it’s like to run a business and be entrepreneurs in a creative industry. They also showed the students what a mural pitch looks like.

Seventy students from all of Branson’s classes helped work on the mural over the course of a week. There were morning shifts and afternoon shifts with around five to seven students in each group.

Levinson and Thompson demonstrated how to properly paint on the building, paintbrush dos and don’ts and more tips, and then the kids took over. Levinson and Thompson only cleaned up drips and line work.

“They did an incredible job,” Levinson said. “I was incredibly impressed with how talented all the students were. It was awesome.”

Branson was also very happy with how the project turned out.

“This was a magical project,” Branson said. “Honestly I can say every single kid was out there with a paintbrush in their hands. They worked their tails off. They were super professional. I have never been prouder of my students in my whole life.”

Falkner also said he was pleased with the finished mural.

“I think it looks great, it’s much more attractive than it was, it was a pretty hideous wall before that,” Falkner said. “I’m thrilled with it. I’m very happy.”

When asked if Branson has plans to do another project like this in the future, she said she needs time.

“I think it’s like having kids,” Branson said. “I need a little time to forget what it was like and then yes, I definitely think we will be doing more murals in the future. As long as Main Street and the city are down, I’m down.”

Branson is happy with the community’s support of the mural.

“I hope that this is something that shows people what the visual arts specifically can bring to their community,” Branson said.