Spotlight: Merchants Alley in Athens celebrates art and music

ATHENS — In less than six months, a public space off Jefferson Street has been transformed into Merchants Alley where people can relax, listen to live performances in warmer months, and enjoy ever-changing art, such as a mural of Limestone County musician Brittany Howard.

“The idea of the celebration of music through art is that we have so many wonderful music legends in our county,” Tere Richardson, executive director of Athens Main Street, said.

At the entrance of the downtown Merchants Alley, there is an archway displaying the name and the first few bars of “Stars Fell on Alabama.” Below the archway, underfoot, are bricks made in 1919, salvaged from underneath the asphalt roads around the square. According to Richardson, the bricks are the only thing in the alley not music-related.

The transformation of Merchants Alley into an artistic showcase began in May, and it officially opened this month.

There are five art components to the alley, according to Richardson. The first is the large mural on the left as you enter the alley, featuring a violin on the side of Terranova’s building.

According to Richardson, the large mural is the only thing that will stay the same in the alley. Richardson said the vibrant colors of the mural will invite people in.

“Music is something that needs to be celebrated in our community. And the idea of doing that through art was that public art is something that can be appreciated by lots of age ranges,” Richardson said.

The second component is the tribute board, which will change every two years. Right now, it features Howard, lead singer and guitarist for the Alabama Shakes. It was done in six hours with two cases of spray paint, according to Richardson.

“In two years, we will have another Limestone County legend on the board. We have not yet determined who that will be, but we’ve got plenty to choose from,” Richardson said.

The current painting, in two years when it is replaced, will be moved to somewhere else in the downtown district, according to Richardson.

Richardson said the third component is “Passages” and created a partnership with the Alabama Center for the Arts. There are doors attached to the alley walls that when opened, reveal murals. College students created the paintings, and they will be changed yearly, Richardson said.

The murals can be removed, and after a year on display in the alley, they also will be featured somewhere else downtown.

The fourth component is murals that are taken from high school students’ designs and painted on by volunteers of the Athens Arts League. Enlarged copies of the designs were used to make tracings on the wall, and then paint was applied, sometimes after modifications by the volunteer artists to fit the space.

Ivy Vartanian and Sam Smith painted one of the high school student designs on a concrete block wall earlier this month.

“We are both new to the community and we both moved here last year … so we’re looking for opportunities to help and volunteer within our realm of expertise. We both have art backgrounds,” Vartanian said.

According to Vartanian, “Mural work, you have to work with the space in order to keep it playful and keep it intentional so that it doesn’t look superimposed and competing with the space. You want it to work with the space.”

The fifth component involves early childhood art. They are called art windows because one piece of art goes in each windowpane of the wall on the right side of the alley.

“We wanted to make sure that we had things that spoke to a lot of different age groups, especially our young people. They enjoy art, they enjoy music, and we wanted a vibrant place,” Richardson said.

“As soon as we started announcing the theme of the alley, it really resonated with the public also,” Richardson said.

Charlie Hughes works at UG White Mercantile on the same block and loves the idea of Merchants Alley. “It’s great, really great. … I went out and sat one day when it was warm. … We’ll use it this spring a lot I’m sure, and warm days we’ll use it. … But we love it, we love it.”

“It’ll be used, I think, quite a bit. People might get something then go there and eat lunch,” Hughes said.

The alley can be used for other events as well. “We actually have had a local company approach us about bringing some of their employees out and do some grilling and have a gathering of their employees. That’s exactly what we’d like to see, use it just like you would a park,” Richardson said.

Richardson said they also would like to do music series in the alley in the spring, probably April, when it warms up. “Kind of a small, one, two, maybe three-person band or solo act that would be performing here in the alley that people could stop by and listen to. Like on a Friday night.”