Saturday, May 02, 2009

More Than Meets The Eye: Downtown Mural Isn't What It Seems...

Activist's Anger Turns To Understanding

By Michael Lollar of The Memphis Commercial Appeal

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network was ready to paint Rhodes College into a corner when a Memphis member of Sharpton's group took offense at what he first thought was a racial stereotype in a Downtown mural.

Chicago muralist Jeff Zimmermann had just begun the giant mural in April, painting an African-American woman with a gold tooth in the lower left corner.

The mural is 152 feet by 58 feet, hard to miss, especially from AutoZone Park, where thousands of baseball fans can clearly see it during Memphis Redbirds games.

Gregory Grant, president of Memphis Tours, saw the mural on the old S.C. Toof & Co. building at 195 Madison while conducting a Downtown tour. He was incensed. Grant is also president of the Memphis chapter of the National Action Network, Sharpton's group.

"The next thing I know you'll have a little boy sitting on a riverbank eating watermelon," Grant told Rhodes communications director Daney Kepple.

The college is coordinating the mural project through its Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts. Rhodes quickly convened a meeting with Grant, Kepple, CODA coordinator Elizabeth Daggett and Rhodes vice president of college relations Russell Wigginton.

Daggett explained to Grant that the woman with the gold tooth in the mural is a real person who had agreed to be a part of the mural along with several other Memphians whose images were used.

It wouldn't be the first time the woman with the gold tooth would be mistaken for something she wasn't. When The Commercial Appeal wrote about the mural this month, passersby mistook her for at least two other people -- Nelson Mandela and the character Grady from the "Sanford & Son" sitcom.

"I guess because my hair is cut short they thought I was a guy," said Savannah Simmons, 80, the real woman who was a model for the artist.

Simmons, who retired in 1983 as a motor tester on the Hunter Fan Co. assembly line, said Friday night she doesn't care that she has become a case of mistaken identity. "It doesn't take anything away from me. I'm still Savannah. I would hope that after looking closer, people would realize I wasn't those other people."

Simmons said her gold tooth is not a cap or crown and wasn't intended as a form of bling. When her real teeth were replaced with dentures, she said she had the dentist insert a gold tooth in memory of her father and his gold tooth.

Wigginton at Rhodes said when Grant realized all of those pictured in the mural are real people who agreed to be part of the project, he suddenly became a fan of the painting.

Grant said Friday night that the National Action Network is constantly "telling young people to take the gold teeth out and pull your pants up. That's part of what we do in society." When he realized the mural depicts real people, he said, "I began to get a full understanding of what the artist was trying to do."

He issued a press release joining Rhodes in inviting the public to a 2-4 p.m. Sunday debut party for the mural.

"It shows Memphis as a harmonious city -- a city that embraces its diversity," he said.
-- Michael Lollar: 901-529-2793

© 2009 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online

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