Artist Kim Radford has never shied away from creating a piece that’s bigger than herself. “Scaling up has never been something I wasn’t interested in,” she professes to Audiofemme. “I’ve always liked to take it bigger.”
Radfrord made headlines in August 2020 with her East Nashville mural of Dolly Parton, when she included a quote from the country superstar’s recent interview with Billboard in which Parton stated her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The creation was perhaps an act of fate, as Radford was originally commissioned to paint a series of murals at a new building in downtown Nashville, one of which was based on a vintage photo of Parton. When the project ultimately fell through, Radford began looking for a new place to bring her Parton piece to life.
After connecting with the owners of The 5 Spot in East Nashville, she put paint to brick. But just before Radford was done with the piece, Parton’s Billboard interview made waves when she was quoted as saying, “I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen. And of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!” The quote quickly went viral, compelling Radford to weave the words into the massive painting that shows a beaming, bright-eyed and big-haired young Dolly surrounded by butterflies and flowers.
“I got home after a long day painting and her interview was all over my social media,” Radford remembers. “I listened to the video, and I loved how she treated a topic that we’re often forced to pick sides – ‘You’re for Black Lives Matter,’ ‘No, you’re against it.’ She did not treat it that way to me,” Radford continues, “We shouldn’t have to be forced to pick a side, and to me, the way she answered the question was perfect. It was the way most people feel, like why is this even a question – of course black lives matter. I liked the way she decompressed a hot topic.”
Radford also has a personal connection to Parton, in that her young son receives a free book in the mail each month through Parton’s Imagination Library. “Dolly just continues to give and give and give,” she admires.
The 42-year-old painter has also made a habit out of about giving back through art. Though originally from Nashville, Radford spent much of her childhood living in various parts of the south that would later inform her art, ranging from the small town of Slidell, Louisiana to the city of Atlanta. Radford eventually found herself back in Tennessee as an art student at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, where she met her husband, musician Jon Radford.
The couple is now based in Nashville, and Radford often gets referrals for work through her husband, including a commission from Americana band Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. Holcomb called on Radford to paint a mural based on encouraging lyrics from the title track of their 2019 album Dragons: “Go slay all the dragons that stand in your way.” Radford turned these words it into an eye-catching visual of a golden mythical creature with white smoke pouring out of its nostrils, almost as if onto the street. The larger-than-life painting has stopped passersby in their tracks, many posing for photos with it, accompanied by such hashtags as #goslaytheweek.
“Someone told me recently, ‘the imagery is really accessible,’ and my work has always been that way. I like big, familiar things done larger than life, which fits murals,” Radford says, adding that she enjoys taking traditional subjects and adding a “pop art” flair to them. And while she admires Nashville’s growing artist scene, she hopes to see more diversification in style. “Nashville can seem to be a little too tasteful sometimes and I would like to see it get knocked around a little bit visually, let some really different people do some amazing works,” she notes, adding point blank: “I want to see some art really fuck it up a bit.”
Radford’s nationwide appeal with the Parton mural proves she has the power to do exactly that. But while she hopes to see fellow artists breaking down the barriers of public art, she keeps its true purpose at heart. “I want people to invest in public art and see what it does for communities, because I really feel like it’s a community boost and it’s an investment in different neighborhoods,” she expresses. “I think it says to a community ‘this is permanent and it’s for you to enjoy. Walk up, touch it, take a picture, tell us what you think about it.’”
Radford experienced the impact of public art interaction firsthand when she pained a mural in Cleveland Park, a neighborhood that has a rich Black history in the city. The neighborhood experienced gentrification when out-of-state investors demolished several buildings and purchased several other properties. In spring of 2020, Radford took to the neighborhood to paint a mural on the corner where a community market once stood, featuring a quote from Maya Angelou that reads “precious jewel, you glow, you shine, reflecting all the good in the world. Just look at yourself.”
Some of the longtime residents of the neighborhood stopped by as Radford painted to tell her how much they appreciated the effort, their gratitude serving as a symbol of the value of public art. “If [the long-time community] thinks it’s beautiful and has a beautiful message, that’s really important than it just looking like brand new bricks and steel fences and nicer cars pulling up all the time. I think art is a gift to everybody that lives around it. It’s a commitment to community,” she concludes. “And it keeps the world interesting.”