By Cara D. Clark
Photos by Cara D. Clark and Marc Bondarenko
Trés Taylor is a revolutionary in the finest sense of the word, from overturning his own career path to establishing a sense of harmony and healing in communities in the South. Armed with paint cans, brushes, and a sense of wonder, the Mountain Brook native’s mission now is one of hearts and minds—drawing communities together through mural projects. His career path diverged dramatically since he began as a biochemist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and later moved to San Diego, Calif., where he felt a distinct sense of disconnection while living on the West Coast.
It was an almost spiritual revelation that led him to tap into his inner well of creativity. A holiday visit to some of Alabama’s most famous folk artists was the catalyst for change, and folk art began pouring from his brush to anything he could paint—wood, paper, sheets—and a new vocation was born, along with a return to Alabama.
“Being around this powerful art and being in the presence of these joyful people had a profound impact when I was in Alabama,” Taylor says. “When I got back to California, I couldn’t stop thinking about the beauty and simplicity of their lives and my appreciation for their incredible work.”
It was meeting artist R. A. Miller, who lived in a tarpaper shack and exuded a sense of peace and wonder that was truly transformative for Taylor. The personification of inspiration, Miller told Taylor he had the capacity to be an artist if only he would try.
And try he did as 1999 rolled into 2000. Using two leftover cans of house paint and a discarded board, Taylor created artwork of a man and woman flying in opposite directions with a heart between them. It was cathartic. It was life-changing. It was a new beginning.
“It felt like I was in neither the past nor the future, but completely engaged in my life at that moment” Taylor says. “It’s not a place you can direct someone to, but the healing nature of being there calls to you. It was medicine for me. When you find something that feels so good, you do it again. I painted and painted, and I loved it. I joked that a paintbrush fell out of the sky and hit me on the head.”
As his art career flourished, Taylor’s self-expression led him across the globe and back. Along the way, he developed a muse, the fictional monk William Guadalupe, patron saint of birdsongs, sunflowers and the broken-hearted who traverses the world spreading flowers and joy in his wake. The figure, whose rich backstory includes tales of his Irish-and-Spanish heritage, features in many of Taylor’s works, including his most recent community project, Revolution of Joy, a partnership with a national nonprofit organization, Can’d Aid.
Taylor, whose work has become widely collected, aims to create a route of murals across the state of Alabama through the Black Belt region in hopes of attracting visitors, along with the economic development and tourism dollars they bring. The community-building public art project, which he began in 2018, involves local volunteers joining in to paint the large-scale murals he designs and sketches on buildings. In June 2019, he created his first mural in Selma, titled “Uplifted,” a salute to the city’s mascot, the Eastern Swallowtail.
The 2020 Selma mural, “Coming Together,” features central the figure of Queen Selma, clasping a magnolia flower, which symbolizes dignity. The painting depicts villagers coming together with flowers for the queen, who will release them into the healing waters of the Alabama River. The queen is based on Selma resident Afriye We-kandodis, a powerful performance artist and co-founder of By the River Center for Humanity, who led opening and closing ceremonies for the mural painting weekend.
Since he began his give-back, Taylor’s revolution has rolled through downtown Birmingham, where he painted a mural on the Alabama Ballet’s wall not far from his studio in Avondale. People of all ages and walks of life joined him in Greensboro, and most recently in Selma in August and Eutaw in October as part of the initiative with Can’d Aid’s TUNES program, which works to provide access and cultivate a love of music, arts, and culture in underserved communities, The uplifting murals work to build community, drive tourism, and shine a spotlight on the rich cultural history of the area.
While he and his wife, Helene, also an artist, were exhibiting at Denver’s Cherry Creek Arts Festival in 2017, they struck up a conversation with Can’d Aid’s like-minded organizers, and the Revolution of Joy was born as a result of them finding common ground as Alabamians.
Diana Ralston, executive director of Can’d Aid and an Auburn graduate, went to work for fellow Auburn student and Oskar Blues Brewery founder Dale Katechis, who brewed his first batch of beer in a bathtub while at the university. Can’d Aid became the charitable offshoot of the popular brewery, and like Taylor’s portrayals of joyful monks on bicycles, the wheels rolled forward, joining artist, charitable organization, and communities in the Deep South.
“The goal of Revolution of Joy is to paint 20 murals inspired by Taylor’s whimsical folk art works on tar paper,” says Ralston. “Can’d Aid is focused on people-powered do-goodery, and this is part of our ongoing visual arts program. During this time of unrest, we are grateful to partner on projects that bring entire communities together to value one another. The mural route will eventually span the entire Black Belt and will feature murals by both Taylor and a local visual artist from each county.”
Since its inception, the Revolution of Joy has enlisted the help of hundreds of community volunteers ranging in ages 10 months to 90 years and has brought together people of different races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds in a common goal of beautifying and unifying communities.
That need for unity and cohesiveness is now more crucial than ever in the divisiveness that has emerged in 2020. Taylor has been on his own mission of healing and is only just getting started on this new journey in a life filled with cultural expeditions. Having painted on everything from rice paper to tar paper, Taylor is at a place and space to give back on a large scale with the Black Belt mural project.
“I’ve learned through this process that with creativity, we are like lanterns,” Taylor says. “We have the ability to turn on or off. Creativity is that light. If you open yourself to the signs around you, you allow the current to come through and turn that creativity on.”
The revolutionary monk, Guadalupe, might appear on a bike, in a boat or with a donkey, but he’s ebulliently bringing mischief and joy wherever he travels, and Taylor wants to do the same to share the wonder.
“You have to open yourself up to it, and when you do that, you see it,” Taylor says. “The scientist part of me wants to take things apart and look at them, and the other part of me is on this mystical search for connectedness. Love permeates everything when you are open to that, and you’ll see that things can be amazing and beautiful.” Taylor feels blessed when reflecting on the dichotomy of his first career versus his new life and the satisfaction and fulfillment gifted to him by his visit with those folk artists two decades past. And he feels a compulsion to share that gift through his art.
“The Black Belt is a treasure,” he says. “There’s so much history, and it’s culturally rich. It needs to be appreciated by more people. I see this mural project as having great potential for economic possibilities. It’s like planting a seed. I want to be like William Guadalupe, throwing flowers to create a little magical reality and a world of joy. If I can put a smile on someone’s face, I feel like I’m doing my job.