As visual artist Leo Rucker has been working on a mural on Seventh Street in Innovation Quarter, about 100 people have noticed and stopped by to chat.
“Some of them come back every day,” Rucker said.
The Depot Street Renaissance mural highlights the history and organizations near Depot Street (now Patterson Avenue) in that section of downtown Winston-Salem.
The mural, which is expected to be completed by the end of this month, will feature 50 to 55 people and buildings that reflect the surrounding history of Black entrepreneurs and leaders, Black-owned businesses and community organizations.
They include: Mo Lucas, who served for more than 50 years as director of the Patterson Avenue YMCA; Velma Hopkins, one of the organizers of the 1943 R.J. Reynolds worker strike; LaMae Beauty College, which opened in 1937; and Mary Burns, the first female president of the Safe Bus Company.
The mural was commissioned through Innovation Quarter’s iQ community Labs and underwritten by Inmar Intelligence, an anchor tenant in Innovation Quarter. Rucker is creating the mural on an existing wall that is 50 feet long, between Patterson Avenue and Research Parkway, across from Inmar’s headquarters.
Lindsey Schwab, director of community relations for Innovation Quarter, said the mural was inspired by the artistic response to the nationwide Black Lives Matter conversation and a subsequent “End Racism Now #BLM” street mural organized in June by the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.
“Part of the Innovation Quarter’s mission statement is to build vibrant communities, so we asked ourselves how we might continue to build community in the save vein in the Innovation Quarter,” Schwab said.
She said officials at Innovation Quarter see art as a way to further engage and build community.
“iQ Community Labs has five sectors of focus and this mural is a great example of the ‘Inclusive Community’ sector,” Schwab said.
She spoke of how people in the community who have personal memories to share about the Depot Street area have made suggestions for more people and places to add to the wall.
Schwab said she wishes there was more room on the wall, but images already planned will basically fill the entire mural.
“One of the opportunities we were able to create is we’re working on an evolving page on our website, where people can go to learn about the history of the many images on the mural,” Schwab said, referring to www.innovationquarter.com/depot-street/.
In addition, community members may contribute their memories of the former Depot Street Neighborhood through the "Community Memoir Collection Project” by Triad Cultural Arts at triadculturalarts.org.
“As Innovation Quarter continues to grow and develop, it’s important that we do so as a community together,” Schwab said. “The mural has already proven to be a powerful tool in community engagement as we honor and recognize our past.”
During an unveiling ceremony of the mural on Dec. 1, David Mounts, chairman and chief executive of Inmar Intelligence, said Inmar was honored to be part of this work.
“Sponsorship is not something we take lightly,” Mounts said. “(It) must align with our values and it must matter. We believe in the power of ecosystems. It’s something that has helped Winston-Salem advance in the past decade — taking a play from the playbook of the leaders and pioneers featured in this work.
“This reminds us of our roots and that it takes a diverse group working together to build a community — educators, entrepreneurs, pastors ... We succeed when all commit.”
He also spoke of some of the stories behind the faces on the mural, including Ola Mae Forte, who established LaMae Beauty College at Patterson Avenue and Sixth Street in the thriving Black business district.
“Her school included a dormitory,” Mounts said. “Her goals were to beautify the people and to help Black women become independent.
Mounts said the visual reminds people about entrepreneurship and community service, saying “together we accomplish more than apart to advance love, honor and equity for every human being.”
“That is how we spread opportunity,” Mounts said. “It is something we at Inmar Intelligence are committed to doing — bringing the head, heart and soul into everything we do to spread love and allow all to reach their full potential, accomplish their dreams and contribute to fabric that builds a strong, vibrant community.”
Planning for the mural was done in late summer-early fall this year.
Schwab said officials at Innovation Quarter reached out to Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University and the Arts Council to get information on possible artists to be considered for the mural project.
“We received a number of proposals, but it was Leo’s that not only inspired but educated,” Schwab said. “We at the Innovation Quarter really responded to his proposal and his vision for this wall.”
Rucker, who primarily does portrait paintings, has done several public murals in Winston-Salem, including at Winston Lake YMCA and the Clark Campbell Transportation Center.
He said he was honored to be chosen to create the mural and did a lot of research about the Depot Street area.
“As I did my own little personal website search, I also realized I needed additional help from some other friends who were more focused on Winston-Salem history,” he said.
Two of those people were Cheryl Harry, founding director of Triad Cultural Arts, to whom Rucker reached out; and Cynthia Jeffries, former director of the Winston Lake YMCA, who contacted him Rucker Facebook.
Rucker said he has also learned from people who have passed by the mural and watched him paint. He has been able to pass on information they perhaps have forgotten.
“One time, a whole line of cars of guys just came by and they went through this whole series of how each one experienced some part of the images that were on the wall,” Rucker said.
He said it’s good conversation and he loves seeing people’s faces light up and their big smiles, especially if they see a relative on the wall.
Once the mural is completed, he expects it to be one of the most photographic backgrounds in Winston-Salem and believes it will bring people together.
“My initial goal, as I began to work on it, was to see people come together and dialogue about history known and unknown to them,” Rucker said.