Colorful flowers brighten a fence.
East Main Street at Wightman Avenue.
Ashland neighborhood art.
Artist: Shea Cathey.
“Hope You Smile”
Between COVID-19 and wildfire smoke in the Rogue Valley, summer 2021 was a difficult one. We needed as many bright moments in our days as possible. This mural has been bringing smiles to faces and hearts since it was painted in June 2021. Whenever you drive, bicycle or walk along East Main Street, it is likely to brighten your day.
The colorful flowers were born from the vision of homeowner Jody Johnson and artist Shea Cathey. Their intention from the beginning was to uplift community members who pass by, which is why Shea named the mural “Hope You Smile.” As you can see from the quote above, they are succeeding. I had the pleasure of talking with both Jody and Shea.
The origin story
I asked Jody when she first envisioned the mural. She told me this story: “My husband Mark and I moved here three years ago. Both of us love color, the brighter the better. When we moved in, the fence was weather-beaten, gray, and falling apart. We had it shored up and stained.
“After moving here, I missed my friends. I started volunteering at the Senior Center, helping with lunches. That’s where I met Shea. She is wonderful, a really giving person, and very talented. I’m not sure Shea knows how talented she is. Shea was doing art lessons and projects with the senior citizens before COVID shut all that down. After they shut down lunches at the Senior Center, Shea and I stayed in touch.
“Mark and I walk this neighborhood a lot. A couple houses down that way [she pointed toward Fordyce Street] have painted their fences. We thought they were really creative. Once we ate at the Mexican restaurant [La Casa del Pueblo on Siskiyou Blvd.] and they had a beautiful mural on the wall. I was thinking: I wonder if I could find out who did it, because I think our fence would be the perfect place for a mural.”
Offer to the artist
Jody didn’t find out who painted the mural at La Casa del Pueblo, but she already knew a good artist. She continued her story: “When COVID hit, Shea wasn’t as busy as she was before. We were out to lunch one day, and I said to her, ‘Would you ever be interested in doing a mural on my fence?’ And she was like, ‘Sure, that sounds like fun.’ Then she asked, ‘What do you want painted?’ I said, ‘You are the person with the talent and the artistic ability. I just like color, so I want something with a lot of color.’ Based on that, she made a drawing for me – and I loved it!”
See a photo of the original drawing below.
Jody told me she thought of painting the inside of the fence, but she felt like that would be selfish. She wanted people to enjoy it as they drove by, and also to provide a colorful entrance to her Mill Pond neighborhood. Before painting could begin, she had to take the idea to the Mill Pond HOA (Home Owners Association) for approval. Almost everyone on the HOA board liked the drawing, so the mural was approved.
The humble artist
“I’m not sure Shea knows how talented she is.”Jody Johnson
Shea Cathey grew up in a small Louisiana town. She has loved making art since early childhood. She took art classes in high school, and at 17 years of age one of her paintings was chosen for an exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York. When she got to college, she studied nursing and let her art go for a while.
I asked, “When did you start thinking of yourself as an artist?” Shea replied, “There’s still a part of me that feels like I am pretending, even when I am teaching art classes, because I didn’t get a degree in art.” On the related subject of selling her paintings, she said, “Painting and drawing are things I enjoy so much that I feel weird charging people for it. That’s something that I know I have to get over.”
Shea and her husband had lived all their lives in Louisiana. A combination of introspection and difficult life lessons led them to consider moving. They researched nationwide for a state with a good scope of practice for nurse practitioners (her husband’s profession), a small town with a university, an open-minded area that supports art and artists, and finally a good school system for their four children. Where did they end up? Right here in Ashland.
The humble artist as excellent teacher
“I enjoy teaching people art because people who say, ‘I’m not an artist, I can’t even draw a straight line,’ end up taking my course, really liking it, and being proud of themselves. That makes me so happy!”Shea Cathey
Since moving to Ashland, Shea has taught art classes through the Senior Center and OLLI, as well as in Bellview School classrooms and private lessons. She told me, “Pre-pandemic, I taught a free art class at the Senior Center once a month, called something like ‘Art with Friends.’ That class was always full.” Since COVID shut down in-person classes, she has taken on the challenge of teaching art on Zoom. It still works, but is not quite as satisfying.
I was moved by Shea’s description of her deep emotional connection with her art students.
“I enjoy teaching people art because people who say, ‘I’m not an artist, I can’t even draw a straight line,’ end up taking my course, really liking it, and being proud of themselves. That makes me so happy! So it makes me feel weird charging them. It seems like an experience that everybody deserves.”
The grateful artist
“I have a really awesome circle of friends here in Ashland, that I never had in Louisiana.”Shea Cathey
Shea is grateful that her family lives in Ashland, and that she can share her love of art with people here. Her appreciation of the Ashland community led her to say “Yes” to Jody’s offer.
Late May and early June, when painting took place, had many days with temperatures in the 90s. Hence the sunglasses when I stopped to talk with Shea and take her photo on June 1st, a 99-degree day. Sitting in front of the south-facing fence, she cared for her body by limiting painting to morning hours as much as possible.
The painting process, step by step
The small drawing Shea created for Jody, which you saw above, was the template she worked from. She was right at home painting a fence, for two reasons. First, I was surprised when she told me, during our interview, that almost all of her studio paintings have been done on wood rather than canvas. Second, she likes to paint big things. Whether a studio painting, a mural on a bedroom wall or on a fence, she is comfortable going big.
Painting begins with paint. Shea likes to mix her own paint colors. Normally, she only buys the three primary colors – red, yellow and blue – plus black and white. Then she mixes any other colors she needs from them.
The first step was sketching outlines on the fence of the flowers and leaves. Sadly, I missed taking a photo of that step.
“While she was painting, so many people stopped to tell her how they loved it – and they still do. Especially when the farmers market is happening across the street, I can’t tell you many people have told my husband and me, ‘That makes us feel so happy.'”Jody Johnson
Next came filling in the outlines with white paint, which acted as primer on the fence.
Then came color – lots of color. Seen from across the street, the colors seem to flow together, to complement each other. The photo below shows the almost-completed mural.
Seen up close, I enjoy the variety of colors in the flowers and leaves. Each bright flower seems to pop out of the fence on its own, saying “Look at me.”
As a final step in completing the design, Shea painted a white background between the flowers to help the colors stand out. She left the original orange-brown fence color top and bottom as a frame for the mural. The frame ties in with the colors of Jody and Mark’s house.
What kind of flowers are these?
What do you think?
I asked Shea. She told me she would call them ranunculus, or buttercups, though you could make an argument for peonies. I have peonies in my home garden and they don’t quite match the mural. I had to look up photos of ranunculus. When I did, I thought, Yes…that’s what the fence flowers are.
Where to find “Hope You Smile”
You will find the mural on East Main Street near the corner of Wightman Street. Another landmark is the National Guard Armory, location of the Tuesday Growers & Crafters Market, which is across the street from the mural.
Cathey, Shea. Interview June 2021 and other communications.
Johnson, Jody. Interview September 2021.