Betsy Robinson never saw herself as a community organizer or leader. A nurse practitioner originally from New York, she’d landed with her family in Midtown Memphis via Denver, and – like most Americans – she just hadn’t been exposed to the I can be the one who makes it happen mindset.
Yet here she is today, one successful ioby campaign just behind her, a second already barreling down the pipeline. The first, which you can go visit now, is a vibrant community mural painted onto the Cooper/Higbee Underpass in Midtown – a joyous spread of ginkgo leaves, dandelion leaves and fluff, homes, bikes and bike lanes, images of kids jumping, hands shaking, fists bumping, and a map of Midtown. The second mural, which is almost fully funded (click here if you’d like to donate), will go up right around the corner, at the Central Ave underpass.
And so, in a few short months, Robinson has become one of Midtown Memphis’ dedicated community leaders, a fact which still seems to surprise and delight her. “I honestly never thought I would do anything like this, ever,” she insists.
So what happened? The short version: A little help – and a little push – from her friend.
The unabridged version:
When Robinson and her family followed her husband’s job to Memphis seven years ago, they chose to make their home in Midtown – just 100 yards from the twin mural sites – in large part because there was a park right nearby. They loved the walkability of the neighborhood, but the truth was that the park had seen better days, and the walk to and from was rundown, too. Robinson was particularly desperate to see someone brighten up the dismal – and very highly trafficked – underpasses that lay between her family and the park.
“It’s just a big ugly set of underpass walls, under the railroad,” says Robinson. “I’d always said to my kids and thought to myself how ugly it is, and somebody should paint a mural there, and why does it look so bad?”
Somebody should… somebody should. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, Robinson’s friend, Ellen Roberds, had taken a job with Livable Memphis, and begun to talk about her new work as a placemaker and community builder. One day, Robinson mentioned her idea to Roberds; why didn’t someone brighten up the dismal twin underpasses at Central Ave with some murals? Why didn’t someone give them a little TLC?
“She said, ‘so do it!’” says Robinson, laughing. “And I was like ‘well, I just don’t do stuff like that. I’m a nurse practitioner, and that’s it.’”
But Robinson’s curiosity was piqued, and when Roberds took her to see a community mural in another part of town, explained what their budget had been, and told her about ioby, the project started to look tantalizingly doable. Robinson reached out to the folks at the Urban Arts Commission for advice, hooked up with some local street artists and painters over at the Memphis College of Arts, and before she knew it, she was in too deep to turn back – she couldn’t deny that she herself was exactly the right person to spearhead the project. Because it mattered to her. Because it was, almost literally, her backyard.
“So I did it,” Robinson says. “I actually went home and made the ioby account that night, and it was live the next day.” Within two days, she’d raised the $1,500 she needed to make the first mural a reality.
Robinson says she took that first mural project on not just because she wanted to better her beloved Midtown community, but also because she wanted to set the example for her own kids. “I really went about it hoping that my kids would see that I’m not just complaining about the place I live,” she says. “I’m actually able to do something about it. I wanted them to see something happening, and that we have the ability to make a change. We had a lot of fun with it.” Now, when Robinson’s kids walk by the first mural with their friends, they proudly point it out and say: “we did that mural.”
Local media noticed, too; there was quite a bit of buzz and excitement around the mural, which had gone a long way to brighten and revitalize the Cooper/Higbee Underpass and immediate area. In fact, says Robinson, “It was so easy that we started a second one.” This new one will be very different, aesthetically, and much bigger, too. This time around, an architect commissioned by a neighboring business will work with the same local artists to create something he envisions as being “completely over the top.”
One of the most inspiring aspects of this second mural project is that, this time around, Robinson is determined to pay the artists for their work: $1,000 each. “They were flabbergasted,” Robinson said. The first mural had put them in the limelight and brought other commissioned projects in for them, but they’d never expected to be paid for either mural. And when local artists are being paid for community work, you know something good is afoot.
For Robinson, the process of getting involved and taking action in her community has been one of incredible learning. She learned, for one, in creating the Cooper/Higbee mural, what a powerful tool community art can be for remembrance and celebration of those who have touched her life. In one spot, the mural depicts a muscled arm emerging from the window of a home; on it is written, in the style of a bicep tattoo:
R.I.P. Mike Crary
It’s a lasting tribute to Robinson’s brother, who died last December.
She also learned that she had many more community-oriented skills in her than she’d ever known. The two mural projects have drawn them out of her, to her surprise. “There’s a lot of things I didn’t know I was capable of, in doing this,” she says.
“We had issues between the artists. They were totally different artists with different types of art, you know, which at one point clashed, and I had to kind of mediate. That’s not something I’d done outside of my own family. It worked out well.”
Robinson’s advice to those who, like her, never saw themselves taking action and leading their communities? “Start putting feelers out and talking to people, and realizing that it’s small steps at first,” she says. “That’s what I did, and I started talking to people, and realizing that it was actually possible.”