PHOTO ESSAY: Pandemic memorial finished

Artist Kelsey Montague (2nd from left) and Mayor Indya Kincannon cut the ribbon at the dedication of Knoxville’s monument to the 2020-2021 pandemic memorial. All photos by Jenna Stambaugh.

A little over a week and $25,000 after announcing the creation of Knoxville’s new COVID-19 memorial, Mayor Indya Kincannon and a crowd of 40 or so others gathered Sunday for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at World’s Fair Park. 

The mural, which covers the interior of one of the tunnels running underneath the Clinch Avenue Viaduct, features a flock of more than 30 brightly-colored tropical birds rising across a brilliant blue background. 

“We wanted to honor the people who we’ve lost to COVID and also the people who’ve helped us survive and be resilient,” Kincannon said Sunday. “Art is a really amazing way to do that. I never had any idea it would look this cool and be so inspiring.”

The mural was painted by Kelsey Montague, whose artwork has been eagerly sought after by communities from coast-to-coast, after she was awarded a $25,000 commission by the City and Dogwood Arts to commemorate the 2020-21 pandemic. 

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!”.

Montague, who is originally from Colorado, said she’s beginning to look at Tennessee “as a second home.” The artist spent much of the previous week being mechanically elevated to the tunnel’s roof as she painted the colorful flock going up the wall and across the ceiling.

“This flock really represents everyone we lost to COVID,” Montague said. “Each bird is unique and different, just like the people we lost.”

The artist said she wants the memorial to do two things.

“I hope this space becomes literally, physically and mentally a safe space,” she said. “So you can remember your loved ones, remember those amazing memories you have with them, and feel safe and open with that.”

She also hopes the memorial “will become a place to create new memories, new experiences, that  are positive and uplifting.”

Kincannon said the memorial wasn’t meant to just honor the dead. It’s also meant to remember the heroism and sacrifices by medical professionals, first responders, nursing home workers, the Board of Health, and everyone who helped the community endure.

“Everyone has suffered and sacrificed over the past 14 months, some much more so than others,” said the mayor. “This memorial, this beautiful mural, is an inspiration and a place of solace for all of us, but it’s especially for those whose pain run the deepest.”

She continued: “We did our best as a community to help our most vulnerable friends and neighbors during this unprecedented pandemic that none of us have ever seen the likes of before.  Yet still, 638 lives were lost here in Knox County.”

The blank blue wall awaits the arrival of artist Kelsey Montague on Tuesday.
The first outlines of what will become a flock of birds appear Wednesday.

Montague on an elevated platform on Thursday as the first birds begin to appear.

The tunnel was blocked off as Montague and crew worked.

Montague (left) and a team member work on the ceiling Friday.

The overall painting is visible late Friday.
Come Saturday and the mural is virtually finished.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at 

Published on May 24, 2021