By Patrick Glynn
Advancing the College of the Arts by generating support of the college’s programs, outreach efforts and other initiatives is at the core of Jennifer Coolidge’s role as the college’s director of development, but Coolidge’s passion for the arts extends much deeper, even into her personal endeavors. On a recent visit to her hometown, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she spearheaded the renewal of an arts project she participated in over 20 years ago.
In 1991, as the educational coordinator at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, Coolidge took part in the center’s new health education program that focused on using the arts as a tool for drug abuse prevention. Ten kids from each of the city’s four local projects participated in a variety of activities, from acting to drawing, all centered around the theme, “hugs are better than drugs.”
Toward the end of the summer, Virginia muralist Allen “Big Al” Carter joined the program and combined the ideas and themes of the students’ work into a mural entitled Mural with a Message. The 16-foot-tall and 48-foot-long mural laid across the Legal Aid Society building downtown and boasted smiling children, bright pink and red hearts and a large, cuddly cat.
After 18 years of gracing the streets of downtown Winston-Salem, the mural was removed because the building was sold and went through a remodel.
While visiting family a couple of years ago Coolidge inquired about the artwork and eventually tracked down architect Rence Callahan who had kept the mural in storage. Elated, she made an agreement with Callahan: if she restored the mural, he would install it on his own firm’s building, located at 530 N Trade Street, in the Winston-Salem Arts District.
So in June 2014, Coolidge, along with Jaylen Mack, a student at Winston-Salem State University, spent around 40 hours touching up the mural with latex gloss paint.
“It really needed a face-lift,” Coolidge said, noting that the bright red hearts had turned rust-colored, and Big Al’s signature thick black lines had gathered noticeable wear-and-tear after 18 years in the elements.
While re-painting the mural, a man who appeared to be in his mid-30s approached Coolidge and thanked her for restoring the work.
The man, Dwayne Broadway, said he was one of the 40 kids who helped paint the original mural. Twenty-three years later he saw the same mural being painted again, but this time he was with his son, who later helped paint some of the mural just like his father had done.
“I will never forget that summer and painting with Big Al,” Broadway told Coolidge. “It seems like yesterday.”
Coolidge credits Big Al as part of the reason she cared so much about the restoration. He passed away in 2008 and she wanted to honor him and his work, which impacted the lives of so many.
Mack described touching up Carter’s work as an “amazing experience.” He said it meant a lot to him because “the mural was designed for a powerful purpose. It made me feel like I can do anything I set my mind to.”
Despite using her own resources and spending her vacation time restoring the mural, Coolidge says it was a joy to be involved in the mural’s restoration. Plus, she even learned how to operate a scissor lift, she joked.
“Art is worth saving,” Coolidge said. “It deserves to be out in the public domain.”