A! Magazine for the Arts

Holly and Jim Thomas

Holly and Jim Thomas

Holly and Jim Thomas build a mural piece by piece

June 25, 2014

Holly Thomas is a decorative painter and muralist. She and her husband, Jim, have two businesses: Brushworks Decorative Painting in Meadowview, Va., and the Herb House Trading Company in Marion, Va.

As a decorative painter, Thomas has worked on several projects from restoration work at The Paramount Center for the Arts, the Lincoln Theater, Francis Marion Hotel, Emory & Henry College, a new children's gym mural at the YMCA in Bristol; and private homes and public projects. Brushworks has been in business for 30 years and has had its work featured in Southern Living and other regional and national publications.

Their new business, Herb House, is where her latest mural is installed.

Installed, because the mural was not painted onto the building but rather on panels that were then mounted onto the side of the building. The mural is 24'x36'.

"The Marion Mural project began with assistance from Suzie Sukle of the Appalachian Spirit Gallery," Thomas says. "Suzie and I brainstormed ways to create a mural which could be painted by volunteers on the ground, and then installed on the exterior of the historic Herb House. We investigated several different substrate materials, finally deciding on a type of masonry fiberboard suitable for exterior use, yet paintable.

"I did the original drawing for the mural, which Suzie printed in enlarged form, so it could be traced onto the panels. The panels were textured, primed, painted and then sealed in a clear acrylic to help keep them from fading. The mural has weathered well, and I expect it to last about 10 years before it will need to be touched up.

"In case of severe damage, panels can be taken down piecemeal and replaced if needed. Permission to hang the mural on the wall of the Herb House came from the Ellis Foundation, owner of the building. The mural weighs a total of 2,000 pounds, distributed over a large surface area under the technical direction of George Zurbier, a local structural engineer. It is hung on lathe strips carefully anchored to the brick and is removable if needed. The project took about two years from inception, through fundraising, to painting and installation."

Thomas received assistance from local residents and journals detailing the history of the area in order to create the original design. She sought approval from family members of images of people who had passed on or created new copyright-free imagery that was representative of the person or story.

"The most popular request was for us to feature the Dip Dog restaurant," Thomas says. "As work progressed, volunteers had input on how images were rendered as far as some color and design elements. Old photos, along with current photos were used to help aid them in their painting work. Volunteers who did not have art experience were as welcome as those who were artists. All had some part of the mural they could paint.

"We wanted more than one artist to paint this mural to create community pride and ownership of the project. It was never about me as an artist, or what my vision was, but about creating a touchstone for learning and self-esteem for Smyth County and Marion."

Approximately 25 different volunteers took turns working on the project: school children, young Job Corp volunteers and their oldest participant, Evelyn Lawrence. In her 90s, Lawrence came and sat in a chair and painted the feathers on the hat belonging to her mother, Susie Madison Thompson, a pioneering educator in Smyth County.

The panels for the mural were either on the floor inside Herb House or propped against brick walls, so they could be painted.

"I personally feel this is a better way to do a mural, if technical help is available for installation," Thomas says. "The reason is it allows work to continue during inclement weather and by older or handicapped individuals who cannot climb scaffolding. In addition, it cuts down project liability significantly, as it takes away not only the possibility of a volunteer falling, but also the temptation of vandalism, or climbing the scaffold when it has to remain in place for a long period of time. The joke around here is that folks said "Wait! Hold on! There wasn't a mural there yesterday,' as the mural installation went very fast ... just a few days, in fact."

The community mural is accompanied by a fence and benches, so people can sit and look at the mural. The fence project was a Boy Scout eagle badge project for Ferris Ellis. The front of the fence is painted as a tribute to Smyth County children and the county's heritage, and the back is painted as a tribute to Smyth County farmers.

The Herb House is as unique as the mural that adorns it.

Herb House is a community-based business that combines a community arts center with local retail goods, used furniture, paint-your-own ceramics studio and ice cream.

"Not all the children or adults who take art lessons can pay for them, and we do discount lessons, art camp and birthday parties," Thomas says. "Also we have meeting space for local groups. We do art outreach into the local area and work with recycled materials to create art. The local goods part of the store features a wide array of local crafters, several of whom have never shown their artwork before. This is a different type of business plan, where member of the local community can feel this store is about them, " Marion's store,' for lack of a better term. This store was a nominee for Virginia business start-up of the year, through the Abingdon small business development center. The Herb House Trading Company is a People Incorporated funded start-up, and recipient of one of the first Marion "Boot Camp' start-up grant awards."

The name pays tribute to its historic location and original name. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic places. When first built, it was the place where herbs such as ginseng, mint and others were dried and processed for use in the early pharmaceutical industry – prior to antibiotics. The building was constructed in 1916 by R. T. Greer. Jim and Holly Thomas are slowly cleaning and renovating all three floors.

And, she says it's haunted – by two ghosts.

To visit the mural: Take exit 45 from I-81 and proceed one mile into Marion. At the first light, turn right onto Pendleton Street. The mural will be on the right at 107 Pendleton Street.

- Regional murals abound in the region