Muralist Ashley D. Thomas likes to paint on the walls. Of public schools, libraries, bridges, hallways, street corners, bus stops and community centers, often holding a mirror to the colors and whimsical moments of childhood while reflecting the stories of Southern black women, contemporary takes on biblical principles and philosophies of empathy.
She has more than a handful of murals to her credit — at Barack and Michelle Obama Academy in the Peoplestown neighborhood; Deerwood Academy, Hutchinson Elementary, Atlanta Meet the Groomers and the Fair Street Superette in southwest Atlanta; the creative mixed-use development MET Atlanta in West End; Frederick Douglass High School in northwest Atlanta — and she recently finished her largest mural to date.
Flight of the Fireflies, as it’s called, fills a wall and sidewalk at the Atlanta Music Project building, the nonprofit youth music organization on Dill Avenue in southwest Atlanta. It, like much of her work, uses bold lines, vibrant colors and thick textures, all of which nod to her New Orleans roots. Her murals tend to have multiple figures, often depicting neighbors who live where she’s working.
Thomas’ earliest memories come from the Big Easy. She recalls how, as a child, the vivid floats of Mardi Gras and the creatives that filled the streets with music and art fascinated her. When her family moved to Atlanta in 1990, she discovered the National Black Arts Festival.
“My mom was big into black art,” Thomas says. “When we moved from New Orleans to Atlanta, we moved from a predominantly black neighborhood to a predominantly white neighborhood. I met several artists who really inspired me. They made me feel like I could do this for a living, and I could see the images of myself in those works.”
Thomas, 36, has a bachelor’s degree in art from Hampton University in Virginia (2006) and a master’s in education administration from Cambridge College (2013).
She worked mostly with oil throughout college. “Dad would tie my canvases to the top of my truck and load me up with Pearl art supplies,” she says. She began experimenting with new mediums when she grew up and couldn’t afford the same supplies. She’s tried acrylics, spray paints, aerosol, graphite and charcoal, and finds that expanding her medium came relatively easy. Lately, she’s done a bit of collage and textile painting. “I can train myself — it’s a gift God has given me,” she says. “I love painting people and capturing spirit and soul. My medium and style depend entirely on what the project calls for.”
ON DILL AVENUE:
Flight of the Fireflies runs 150 feet along Atlanta Music Project headquarters. The title plays on the Rimsky-Korsakov composition “Flight of the Bumblebee” (1899–1900). “As a kid, I played cello,” she says, “and I remembered this song.”
Much of her work addresses racial stereotypes and sociopolitical preconceptions, but Flight of the Fireflies focuses on the pleasantries of childhood. The mural reads left to right, beginning with Atlanta Music Project first violinist Donovan Fuller. As fireflies leave his instrument, they weave around each person they encounter.
“I want these kids to spread hope to adults,” Thomas says. “A lot of the time what divides us is an adult thing because we are aware of the issues we have — racial division, economics, things of the past. But as a child, we still have innocence. It’s a whimsy that you have as a child, and I started to think of activities that bring different types of people together.”
The mural features other Atlanta Music Project musicians, key individuals in the organization and neighbors. Thomas knocked on doors there to introduce herself, do interviews, take photos and solicit help. “People around the neighborhood began to watch out for me — there’s so much love out there. I always say my art is like gumbo. You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s going to taste good.”
She’s applying for a chance to paint a mural commemorating the 28 victims of the 1979–81 Atlanta Child Murders, as a project of the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs.
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ArtsATL’s street art column appears every other Thursday (Wednesday this week because of Thanksgiving) and is done largely in collaboration with Art Rudick and his Atlanta Street Art Map. We’d love to hear from you. See something you like? Something we should know about? Have an opinion or suggestion? Please email email@example.com.