Artist Jillian Hirsch helps communities create

Tracy Haun OwensFeature, West Knox

Jillian Hirsch was working as an artist in upstate New York when she chose graduate school at the University of Tennessee. She was tempted here by the long summer and the presence of the Great Smoky Mountains, not to mention the superb studio faculty at the school.


“Knoxville itself was a big appeal,” Hirsch says. “It seemed accessible because of its size and history.”

She sensed a momentum to the art scene here, plus an emphasis on protecting the environment, something her work regularly addresses. She also guessed it was a place where she could make a difference immediately, and she was right about that. Even before starting her first fall term in graduate school, she had facilitated and designed the Strong Streams Beaver Creek mosaic mural at the Karns Senior Center, a public art project of Knox County Stormwater Management. She also took the lead on a mural project at Maynard Elementary School, working with a grant from the UT Foundation.

“Strong Streams: Beaver Creek,” a three-part mosaic mural created by artist Jillian Hirsch and the Karns community, presented by Knox County Stormwater Management (Photo courtesy of Knox County Stormwater Management)

The Beaver Creek mural was her first introduction to the community. After she was accepted at UTK, she started checking out local nonprofits and government offices, looking for an organization interested in using the arts to reach out. Stormwater Management had finished its first public art project and had the interest and infrastructure to get another project done. She credits project managers Natalie Landry and Stephanie Carlson for their hard work and enthusiasm and says they became friends as well as collaborators.

Completed with help from a grant from the state of Tennessee and support from local sponsors, the completed mosaic mural was unveiled in July. The mural depicts native plants along the six-mile Beaver Creek Water Trail at Knox County Sportspark, which is next to the senior center.

In creating the tiles that make up the mosaic, Hirsch and the Knox County Stormwater Management office held hands-on art workshops at the senior center over a period of several months. Some of the senior artists got their grandchildren involved, and Hirsch also reached out to local high school students.

Hirsch says she found the people of Karns “funny and welcoming.” She worked especially closely with the Beaver Creek Kayak Club, which has been one of the biggest boosters in creating the navigable water trail.

“When you start working with community, you build relationships,” Hirsch says.

Under Hirsch’s leadership, undergraduates and elementary students worked together to create a mural for the Maynard Elementary School library. (Photo courtesy of University of Tennessee)

She extended that community-building across town, when Maynard Elementary School on College Street asked the UT Foundation for help in painting a mural for its library. Working with professor Jason Brown, Hirsch mentored a group of undergraduates and elementary school students for a hands-on creation experience that came from the kids up, not top down.

“We didn’t want to just go in, paint a mural and leave,” she says. “Working together was my favorite part.”

With grant funding from the UT Office of Community Engagement and Outreach remaining, Hirsch is eager to engage for the next project there, both for the fun experience and for the big ideas behind it.

“How can we serve the school and use this as a platform to think about community?” she asks.

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