Pandemic memorial to soar

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Shannon Herron of Dogwood Arts discuss the planned COVID-19 pandemic memorial. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

This week the people of Knoxville have the chance to watch one of the nation’s most celebrated artists create the city’s permanent memorial to the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic.

Kelsey Montague will create the memorial this week, transforming one of the short tunnels under the Clinch Avenue Viaduct into a colorful mural meant to celebrate life and hope.

Montague, whose artwork has been eagerly sought after by communities from coast-to-coast, aims to elevate those who experience it, according to Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon.

“Kelsey always aims to be inspiring, and I like how she invites passersby to make themselves a part of her art,” Kincannon said. “This artist was passionate about wanting to reach out and help families hurt by COVID-19 to heal and recover. She created a message with her memorial design that’s truly unique – you won’t find it anywhere else.”

As much as people might like to forget the events that began in 2020, it’s essential that they remember them. 

It was, after all, the year when the world as they knew it came to to a sudden stop. 

Work ceased. Schools closed. Travel was halted. Theaters, bars and sporting events closed down. The dying started early, and within twelve months of the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 millions of people were dead around the globe.

Knox County wasn’t spared. In fact, no single event in Knox County’s history has caused more death and misery than the COVID pandemic, even if the vast majority of those who caught the disease recovered on their own. As of mid-May, the county health department estimated that 636 Knox County residents had been killed by the coronavirus and thousands more had been hospitalized during the 2020-2021 pandemic.

“This is something we’ll be telling our children and grandchildren about,” Kincannon said. “It’s going to be in the history books, how we responded as a community in loving, kind, supportive ways. We all worked together to survive. I mean, there were bumps in the road, to be sure, but we’re here and we need to honor the people we’ve lost and the sacrifices of the people who helped us survive.”

Kincannon’s remarks were made Friday under the Clinch Avenue Viaduct as she and other officials showed local media representatives where the City’s permanent memorial will be.

The underpass had already been painted a vibrant blue that was nearly as deep as Friday’s cloudless sky in preparation for Montague and her team, said Shannon Herron, marketing director for the City’s project partner, Dogwood Arts.

A sprawling mural of hundreds of birds taking flight will soon cover the interior of one of the short tunnels through the underpass, Herron said.

“Her work is very interactive,” he said. “You can stand to the left of the mural and it’ll look like you’re releasing this flock of birds. The birds will go all up the wall and onto the archway of the underpass. It’s going to be a great celebratory place of remembrance for the community.”

   Herron explained that Montague is slated to begin work on the mural Tuesday and have it completed on Sunday, May 23.

“Having an artist of her caliber has meant a lot for us,” he said.

Kincannon was confident that Knoxvillians will respond positively to the mural’s symbolism and participatory concept.

“We’ve all been to celebrations of life like wedding and funerals where releasing a bird is symbolic of catharsis, hope, remembering loved ones,” the mayor said. “And so it just seemed very appropriate. The birds will be a wide variety of birds, not all just the same kind of bird, which also represents all the different members of our community from different walks of life who have been experiencing the hardship of this pandemic. 

“It seems to fit really well with what we’re trying to honor and remember here.”

Artist Kelsey Montague describes how she plans to create Knoxville’s pandemic memorial.

Montague has painted hundreds of bright, larger-than-life murals, drawing inspiration from butterfly wings, balloons, dragonflies, hot air balloons and heart motifs for her work, officials said. Her 2014 mural in New York City with the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou was applauded by singer Taylor Swift, who then commissioned Montague to do a butterfly mural in Nashville for the release of her song “Me!”.

In a Monday interview that was conducted via Zoom, Montague explained that her artwork will commemorate loved ones lost during the pandemic

“I love the idea of all the individual birds,” she said. “The idea of all these individual birds and how beautiful it is that they’re all moving in one direction. They’re all together, but different.”

Montague said that she and her team will be painting in full view of passersby at World’s Fair Park and the public is welcome to watch them work.

Just don’t expect an autograph or conversation, as she and her team will be quite busy. 

“For me, I kind of go into a bit of a tunnel, I just focus on my art,” she said. “Of course, I want people to stop by and watch. My sister will be with me, so if I’m not answering questions she’ll be there.”

The City is putting up $25,000 to cover Montague’s commission and also donated the section of the underpass that will serve as her “canvas,” Kincannon said. 

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at 

Published on May 18, 2021