GATLINBURG, TN (AP) Mike Cooper is an artist, but also a magician.
In seven months, he’s made 1.5 mi. (2.5 km) of towering concrete walls holding back the blasted hillsides of a highway construction project bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park fade into the background of one of the most scenic drives in America.
“You are not going to make 50-foot walls disappear,” said the muralist from Franklin. “But what you can do is make them less obtrusive and blend in a little more.”
Cooper has directed an $800,000 roadside paint job requiring up to 18 muralists at a time working off and on since October. They applied 2,500 gal. (9,465 L) of paint to the walls in various shades of tan, slate and green in long, rolled strokes using 16-ft. (4.8-m) poles and hydraulic lifts.
It’s the first highway mural of its kind in Tennessee, and although some might describe it more as camouflage than art, even skeptics are impressed.
“I think it looks fine,” said Doug Blalock, roadbuilder. “It doesn’t look like your standard concrete wall anymore. It certainly looks unique.”
Vesna Plakanis, who runs the Walk in the Woods guide service, never liked the idea of widening U.S. Highway 321.
“With that said, I am very pleased with the work being done to mitigate the horrors of the concrete canyon,” she said.
Cooper always wanted to apply his art to this sort of canvas. Around his middle Tennessee home, he imagined a fanciful Band-Aid over a patched retaining wall here or some faux marble there.
“These walls are screaming to do something,” he told a friend of a friend of the Tennessee Department of Transportation [TDOT] in Nashville.
But he never dreamed, even after seeing photographs, that his first TDOT commission would be so extreme. “It was absolutely nothing like I thought,” he said. “It was more walls than you could possibly imagine.”
The $30-million U.S. Highway 321 project was meant to transform a 2.6-mi. (4.2 km) section of rural two-lane highway into a five-lane Interstate 40-linked portal to Gatlinburg, the biggest gateway city to the most visited national park in the country.
With tight limits on available right of way, the roadbuilders chose to dig deep and relatively narrow, lining their path with a steep, jagged line of brilliantly white concrete retaining walls.
The job, begun in 2001, was nearly done when Gov. Phil Bredesen came into office in 2003 on a campaign pledge to make TDOT more responsive to taxpayers’ concerns about the use, need and aesthetics of their roads.
Bredesen ordered a review of the most troubled projects in the state. The Gatlinburg project, which had elicited hundreds of letters from people worried about its impact on the park, was among them.
So-called community-based resource teams, comprising elected officials, businesspeople, conservationists and urban planners — both supporters and opponents — were formed to find ways to make the projects more palatable.
Because the walls were already built by the time the resource team was formed on the Highway 321 job, the panel recommended painting them. Tearing them down wasn’t an option.
There were all sorts of suggestions about how the walls could be decorated — from lifelike bears and Daniel Boone to flower boxes and train tunnels.
“We could have had one long scene, some storyboard,” said panelist Bob Miller, public relations manager for the Smokies. “But partly because of cost and partly because we felt like it could easily be a distraction and look out of place, we decided to go with something that is a lot more neutral. We didn’t want to draw attention to the wall.”
Cooper’s crew did use some faux painting tricks on the waist-high concrete pedestrian walls on the highway’s bridges. They were painted to resemble mortared stone block walls in the park.
“I think it definitely has a softer appearance than what the original concrete walls were,” said TDOT project manager Chris Jenkins, adding that painting the walls was only the beginning.
Highway officials also agreed to tear up the paved middle lane and install a raised median for plants and trees. A $1-million state grant and $350,000 match from the city will supply the landscaping this fall. Plantings also will be added along the base of the retaining walls and behind them so foliage can drape over the tops.
“There is a lot of out-of-the-box thinking going on,” said Blalock, who built the first phase and is advising on the second. “It is pretty neat to watch people who have been very structured — TDOT — now being asked to think aesthetic rather than what’s functional.”
Cooper liked the finished product and hoped to do more murals down the road.
“I guarantee you will be seeing more of them, if I have anything to do with it,” he said.