Words and Photos by Robert Daniel.
You have probably seen it. You may have even leaned against it, stopped and admired it, but you probably do not know its story. The it, I am referring to is the Tate mural, a 64-foot long watercolor mural by Jamie Calkin, a local Athens artist. I sat down with Jamie Calkin to ask him to share the story of the mural.
It is a story that almost never happened.
According to Calkin, “Willie Banks [the then director of the Tate Student Center] emailed me and told me they were having a contest and we want you to submit. I don’t like contests, and I didn’t honestly do the best job.”
After Calkin submitted the application for a large mural in the new Tate Student center, he received a call. Here’s where the story takes an unexpected turn. Calkin met with Banks and Banks told him there was both good news and bad news.
“The bad news is you didn’t get selected…you came in second, but the good news is we have another spot for you and it’s bigger,” explained Banks.
Calkin resubmitted and was accepted. There was only one large problem. Calkin’s style uses watercolors and bold black lines normally created by a calligraphy pen. That wasn’t exactly the normal artistic style for a 64 foot acrylic. Like any challenging artistic endeavor, Calkin tried new things in an attempt to maintain his style but to also adapt it to the challenge of a wall mural. He tried to water down acrylic paint but it wasn’t long before he realized he couldn’t keep his same style if he did that. Faced with a challenge and no obvious answer, Calkin did what anyone would have done: he turned to the Internet. His inquiries were met with not much help.
“People were like ‘you’re nuts for trying to do a watercolor that size’,” said Calkin.
In any creative endeavor that stretches you there is always that moment of self-doubt. Calkin was staring down this moment of self-doubt. At this point in our interview, I stopped Jamie and asked him “Was there ever that ‘Oh crap moment?’” He paused took a breath as if he was slipping back into the stress of that moment and responded.
“Yeah there was a lot of those. There wasn’t a single moment.” As if in someway relieved by the cathartic and vulnerable response, Calkin paused again, “I also tend to be an optimist. I like that word expressionism because I’m trying to invoke those positive happy moments.”
True to his optimistic approach Calkin soldiered on and finished the mural painting on panels that were then installed.
Today the mural sits in Tate II, a newer portion of Tate and serves as the backdrop for everything from selfies to quiet moments on the benches located nearby. Calkin’s paintings leave you with a sense of contagious optimism. Calkin does not paint a rainy day or a leaf-less tree. Instead his scenes connect the viewer with the place in a way that is designed to invoke those positive memories. This story of the mural encapsulates Calkin’s work. He was denied, and then he was pressed – pressed to refine and research and grow while staying true to his style.
There is a playfulness to Calkin’s work – a sunny afternoon style to his watercolor that draws out the positive associations people have with the places and scenes he paints. Calkin is known for several streetscapes from college towns. These scenes highlight that style connecting it to the viewer’s memory. It’s as if Calkin’s paintings filter our own memory of a place so we see and remember the positive aspects.
The Tate mural has that effect. The mural shows campus sprawling from the arch to the football stadium. The colors pop due in large part to the white skies Calkin leaves in his paintings. Those skies serve to give the viewer a break from the swirl of color below. As you stand and look at the mural you can’t help but smile.
As Calkin remarked about this process, “I’ve always wanted to put stuff on the walls,” and that is something we are all thankful for.