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Artist in Residence: #SmallTownBigArt

Story by Titus Mohler

Photos by Carley Fetty and Titus Mohler

Carley Fetty, a visual art and photography teacher with Prince Edward County Public Schools, said she doesn’t know she could really say when she started painting.

“I’ve always been creative,” she said. “I don’t really love to call myself artistic, because I feel like as far as abilities go, honestly, some of my students are more talented than I could ever imagine being. But as far as creativity, I’ve always loved going big.”

A national art honor society sponsor and a 2010 Longwood University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in fine art, Fetty said she loves painting big things.

“When I was in high school, we had a senior lounge,” she said. “We would paint the walls in the senior lounge, and we painted the sides of our dugouts. And I went and I worked at 4-H after Longwood, and we would paint these big murals for the students.”

She noted that she has always loved the idea of mural painting.

“I just love the way it includes everyone in the art, even after it’s been finished,” she said. “Everyone that walks by it, and says, ‘That’s so cool,’ or takes a picture with it or takes a picture of it, they’re included in that art in some way. They’re a part of it. So I think that I’ve always loved the idea (that) this type of art brings people together continuously.”

This love of mural painting helped pave the way for different paintings that have become part of the downtown Farmville landscape, including images from what is known as the Student Artist Mural Project.

The project, involving artists ages 12-21 from Prince Edward, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland and Lunenburg counties, was made possible by a SOUP grant offered through the Farmville Downtown Partnership. SOUP stands for Supporting Outstanding Urban Projects.

“I had never heard of the SOUP Project before where they award the small programs some grant money,” Fetty said.

She first heard of it at the same time that she was preparing for the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts’ Start With Art show, which highlights artwork of public, private and homeschool students in the area for a month.

“I was thinking about how because it’s such a great show, it’s such a shame that it has to come down so soon,” Fetty said. “And then almost the same day that I had this thought, I heard the ad for SOUP, and so I was like, ‘Hey, what if we did some kind of a student art thing that didn’t have to come down?’”

Helping bring mural paintings to the forefront of Fetty’s mind at the time was the then-recent unveiling of the mural formerly located in whole on the side of the Doyne Building at the corner of Main and Third Streets, heralding Farmville as “America’s First Two-College Town.” It was painted by Joe Giles and his team.

Fetty said she was surprised and very elated when her Student Artist Mural Project proposal won a SOUP grant in early 2017.

The project became active shortly thereafter and is ongoing in 2020, with finished paintings on display in three different locations in downtown Farmville.

“There have been five students who have completed their murals,” Fetty said. “The murals were individually designed by that student, and I helped along the way. But they were definitely painted collaboratively.”

She said there is a group of students that has probably shown up to every single mural to help the designer paint.

“It’s rarely a one-person job, which is really great, because it brings all of the artists in, and in the process of getting those painted up and having all those extra hands, it even sometimes transforms what (the designer’s) original design might have been,” Fetty said. “So it’s definitely collaborative in that sense when it starts to go up on the wall.”

She said the project’s first mural to go up was the Farmville postcard visible on the side of the j ferguson gallery facing Walker’s Diner on North Main Street. With some help from Fetty, it was designed by Audrey Magill, who was an eighth grader at the time.

The next mural was a clever repeating image designed by sixth-grader Kailynn Hamilton. It is located on the side of what was Christopher’s Fine Art and Framing at 111 E. Second St.

“After that, we kind of hit a wall, so to speak, for where we could put some student murals, and we had a lot of students that were turning in ideas, but they weren’t quite full proposals,” Fetty said. “So we kind of took a step back and took our time finding a spot.”

She said her hope was to find a place where they could put a lot of murals very close together.

There is a retaining wall on South Street across from Macado’s that Fetty said she had been passing for 15 years and thinking that she wanted to paint. She arranged a meeting with then-Town Manager Gerry Spates to ask if it could be used for the Student Artist Mural Project.

“He didn’t even ask any questions,” she said. “He was like, ‘Yes, let’s do it. Fill it up, it’s all yours.’ And he gave me the whole block.”

As of early March 2020, it features five murals with room for plenty more. Fetty contributed one, with the other four being made by students.

“We’re just going to keep adding every time a student turns one in and it gets picked to paint,” Fetty said. “We’ll just add it up to that wall.”

The finished student murals on the wall include one designed by Ava Tibbs, when she was in fifth grade. Another was a joint design by Carrington Detrick and Julianna Swanson, when they had just finished eighth grade. One was a joint design by recent high school graduate Jarrel Robinson and Fetty. Another was designed by recent high school graduate Nicole Leeds.

Directly inspired by the Student Artist Mural Project, Fetty got permission from Pairet’s to do her own separate painting of a butterfly on the side of their building facing Farmville Baptist Church on North Main Street.

“It was after being inspired by the kids for so long and helping them do their ideas, I kind of wanted to get my own thing out of my head, I guess,” she said.

She noted that a lot of other downtown areas in the U.S. have what they call “selfie spots.”

“They’re usually some kind of a butterfly wing or bird wings or something, just a place for people to stop and take a picture and post it, and it kind of gives the town some street cred,” she said. “And I’ve always wanted to have something like that here.”

She added the butterfly to a downtown art tapestry that also includes work by Audrey Sullivan, of Red Door 104, along with the students and Joe Giles.

“I think that the bigger picture is kind of how can all of these groups and people work together to kind of bring art downtown,” Fetty said. “And so that’s when I started tagging things with #SmallTownBigArt.”

She said the goal is to have all of that art be recognized as having been done in Farmville.

“Regardless of what program did it, we want Farmville to be seen as this little hub of art and creativity and of community in this very rural, country area,” she said.

And so far, it’s been working.

“I follow the #SmallTownBigArt hashtag on Facebook, and there have been people that are just randomly coming through town from way out of state, and they’ll take a picture in front of the butterfly wings, and they’ll use the hashtag #SmallTownBigArt,” she said.

She added that in a way, using the hashtag is connecting them not just to Farmville, but it’s then connecting them to all the other art in the town.

“So when they click on that hashtag now themselves, they’ll see the artwork that Audrey did, they’ll see the artwork that the students have done,” Fetty said. “So it’s all connecting itself back to this idea of Farmville being a creative central location.”

This spring, she hopes to both rekindle interest in the Student Artist Mural Project and also incorporate a Longwood artist, allowing them to add their seasoned brush strokes next to those of the younger artists.

“I just think that having that range of artistic ability would be really cool,” she said.

Those interested in participating in the project can send entries in digital format — .jpg, .png or .ai — to studentmural@gmail.com, and entrants should include the completed entry form with their submission. Only one entry per person/team is allowed, and artwork should be entirely original and executed solely by the artist/artists.