published Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Plural murals: Chattanooga artist thinks outside the box

This trompe l’oeil ceiling mural by Ali Kay received a 2013 Design Award from the American Society of Interior Designers.
This trompe l’oeil ceiling mural by Ali Kay received a 2013 Design Award from the American Society of Interior Designers.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Mural artist Ali Kay has a studio in Chattanooga WorkSpace on West Sixth Street.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
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When Ali Kay moved to Chattanooga from Houston, Texas, seven months ago, she bypassed her residence and headed straight to her new art studio.

The award-winning artist, who specializes in murals, was anxious to start work.

"I literally drove straight to the studio in a U-Haul from Houston," says Kay, whose studio is at Chattanooga WorkSpace on West Sixth Street. "My husband and I decided to build a new house on the North Shore, so most of our things were in storage when we arrived. I knew I wanted to start working right away, so we packed up the U-Haul with just my studio contents and drove here."

Kay, 29, received her first art commission when she was 15 and it hooked her on painting murals.

"My friend's mom hired me to create an underwater-themed mural in their bathroom. I remember I didn't have my driver's license yet, but they only lived a few blocks away, so I packed all my paint up in a coaster wagon to take to my client's home," she recalls.

Kay's murals range from floral scenery to people, trees and intricate designs. She also paints on canvas.

While she was in Houston, about half of the murals she was commissioned to paint were on ceilings. She won six design awards for her murals from the American Society of Interior Designers.

"I think the reason they were so popular was that many of the homes I worked in had unique ceiling features such as domes, groin vaults and trays," she says. "My clients wanted to highlight these features and really make them shine.

"I've heard it said that the ceiling is the fifth wall," Kay says. "It has gotten overlooked as an area to add design and interest to a space. Why should ceilings be plain white?

Kay -- who moved to Chattanooga with her husband, Jason, because of his new job at Metaltek -- says ceiling murals don't "seem to be quite as widespread in Chattanooga, but I hope to change that."

"I think once people start seeing the impact it can have, the idea will spread," says Kay, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree with a focus in painting and drawing and a minor in art history from the University of Wisconsin.

Local interior designer Mary Jane Tallant Fitzgerald, owner of Tallanted Interiors, says she has worked with many clients throughout her 20-year-career who have murals in their homes.

Fitzgerald says that while requests from clients about murals have been constant throughout her career, the down economy has had an effect of people's budgets.

"The peel-off decals have become popular in the last couple of years," she says. "When money is tight, some people turn to that option. But decals do not hold a candle to murals. With murals, you get paint, and with paint you get depth and texture. It adds so much warmth to room."

Chattanoogan Anne Wehunt, assistant director of athletics communications at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says she's a fan of murals.

"When I was a kid, my mother painted the zodiac on one wall in the basement and the planets on another. My bedroom had Cinderella's castle with the whole Disney crew stretching across two walls," says Wehwunt, whose late mother was a long-time art teacher at Notre Dame High School. "Her art room at Notre Dame was covered with her students' work."

Wehunt says the walls in her home today are bare but she is considering having a mural painted on one of the walls in her office. "I work in the dungeon in the McKenzie Arena and have no windows."

Kay says her first local ceiling mural will be in her own home.

"I have plans to paint a large medallion around my chandelier in my own home and, I'm pretty sure that once I do, I will be doing more and more."

In 2003, Kay started her decorative painting company, Positive Space, while a student in art school in Milwaukee. For the next seven years, she did mural work there in private homes and businesses. In 2010, she and her husband moved to Houston.

"This is where my painting business really took off," she says. "I found an incredible demand in Houston for high-end custom wall finishes and murals. I worked with many talented interior designers on a variety of decorative painting projects."

Kay's work in Houston was mostly in private residences, she says, but here she hopes to expand into commercial projects.

"I see so many great restaurants and bars here that are opening all the time and I just think there is a lot of opportunity for custom painting," she says. "I have a habit of thinking really big and outside the box and a commercial setting lends itself to that."

Despite their size, some of her works take just one day to complete, she says.

"If it's a very simple silhouette style mural or a simple wall finish on a single wall, it can be done in a few hours. I have done some very large scale murals that can take up to a month. I would say that most of the projects I do take about a week to complete," she says.

The cost of Kay's work is determined by the time it takes to complete a project, the cost of materials, and the difficulty of the space in which she works.

"If I'm working on scaffolding 30 feet in the air, I have to charge more than if I am on the ground," she says. "I also consider the value of what I am creating. Sometimes the final work of art is very valuable even though it did not take long to create."

The sources of her inspiration are varied.

"Usually my clients have some sort of direction they want to go with their space, but not always. Sometime, we start from scratch.

"I'm inspired by so many things," she says. "I have to say that Pinterest changed everything for me. It's usually the first place I go when I need to be creative. I don't copy anything I see online, but it gets me thinking. I can use bits and pieces of other projects I see and combine them with my own ideas to come up with something great. I don't think there is much difference anymore between my canvas work and my murals. It's all custom fine art."

Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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