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Rural Renaissance

Updated: Apr 30


Flint Energies grant program is awakening rural residents’ community pride.

Fort Valley mural 1
This iconic mural in downtown Fort Valley celebrates much of what the small town is known for.

As a child, Marian McLemore dreamed of one day being a professional artist. Instead of pursuing her pastime as a profession, she studied journalism in college and entered the field of public relations—a career compromise she refers to as “creativity with a steady pay check.” As vice president of cooperative communications for Flint Energies, McLemore is the brains behind the cooperative’s Rural Murals Program, combining her passion for painting with her desire to enhance the rural communities she serves.

Launched in 2019, the program provides matching grant funds to communities within the Flint Energies service area to install large-scale, public art that reflects the unique character and history of the locale. Beginning with a traffic-stopping, agriculture-themed mural in downtown Oglethorpe, the program has helped fund ten rural murals to date. In addition to Oglethorpe, the communities of Roberta, Fort Valley, Butler, Buena Vista, and Ellaville have received funds to complete murals, all of which are located in historic town centers.

And the results have been overwhelmingly positive, according to McLemore.

“It’s like a veil being lifted off their eyes,” she says. “Each mural awakens something in the people of that community, and they begin to rally around their hometown.”

Oglethorpe Georgia Mural

The phenomenon McLemore describes is familiar to Natalie Bradley, who oversaw the installation of the first Flint-funded mural, located at the heavily traveled intersection of Georgia highways 49 and 128 in downtown Oglethorpe. Now a community connections specialist with the cooperative, in 2019 Bradley was directing Oglethorpe’s Downtown Development Authority and led the mural project. Desperate to find ways to restore pride and hope in the historic crossroads community, Bradley stumbled upon the inaugural award announcement just in time to complete the application. She recalls shrieking with delight when she received news Oglethorpe had been selected.

Bradley says the mural changed everything for downtown Oglethorpe, leading residents to rethink and reinvest in the area. In the few years since installation of the iconic Oglethorpe piece, blight—long-term property vacancy and abandonment—among downtown structures has decreased from around 80 to just 20 percent. Bradley credits the mural with sparking interest and creating energy that led to additional downtown improvement projects.

Buena Vista mural
Johnson, third from left, and McLemore, center, were among those present for the official unveiling of the Buena Vista mural.

A similar story can be told in Buena Vista, where a breath-taking, two-story panorama features flora and fauna native to south Georgia. Since its completion in 2022, the work has not only inspired more investment in the county’s quaint courthouse square, but the mural itself is growing, quite literally. On Earth Day 2024, students from Marion County’s 4-H program and representatives of UGA’s Botanical Garden installed native plants between the mural and the street, making this the first interactive portion of the Flint program and creating a living classroom for learners of all ages. It is another example of how a somewhat simple idea—like painting a scene on the side of a century-old building—can generate the energy needed to fuel major transformation.

“It really doesn’t take much to make a huge change,” says Christoph Johnson. “It just takes someone with the vision and someone who can bring it to life.”

Johnson has become as much a part of the program as the larger-than-life images he creates. Formerly an art professor at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Johnson is now a full-time, professional muralist whose awe-inspiring work can be seen throughout the Southeast. So far, Johnson has been the mastermind behind nine of Flint’s ten rural murals, beginning in 2020 with the local history-themed piece he completed in his hometown of Roberta.

Johnson explains that he has witnessed the advent of one rural revival after another during the design process, long before the wider community even knows what is in the works. It’s an exciting evolution he feels honored to experience.


Fort Valley mural
The tenth and most recently completed Flint mural is the fourth they’ve helped bring to downtown Fort Valley.

Having seen that huge change in one community after another where he has helped generate a spark of hope, Johnson has a specific wish—that other rural electric cooperatives would follow Flint’s lead and undertake similar programs in their own service areas. That would be a sincere form of flattery that Flint’s McLemore would welcome wholeheartedly, and wholly out of a heart that loves rural Georgia’s people and places.

“These murals are like our love letters to our communities,” McLemore says. “They showcase the best of our communities and, in doing so, they offer hope. They are truly some of Georgia’s rural jewels. If you haven’t seen them, you are missing out.”


The Rural Center team would love to hear about the people, places, and programs that enhance your hometown or rural community. Email us the details and help us tell the story!


 

Photo credits from top:

Oglethorpe mural, by M.C. Gaston

Buena Vista mural, courtesy of Marian McLemore/Flint Energies

Fort Valley fourth mural, courtesy of Marian McLemore/Flint Energies



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