New public art installation adds beauty and history to Mid-South Coliseum revitalization effort

“The Words of Memphis” is a new public art installation on the north side of the long-unused Mid-South Coliseum building.

Child-and-father artist team Nisa Williams (they/she) and Theo James were commissioned by the Coliseum Coalition to create a six-panel mural based on six “words of Memphis”: culture, talent, justice, community, passion, and imagination.

Both Williams and Marvin Stockwell, co-founder of the Coliseum Coalition, said the artistic partnership came about by chance. The Coalition was already looking for an artist to develop something for the north entrance of the building but hadn’t found the right fit.

“There's a mural that I and three others painted in the Crosstown Concourse building, in our school,” said 17-year-old Williams. “Marvin knew it was there, obviously, because his daughter goes to my school and we're best friends. And then it kind of developed into more of a thing.’”

Stockwell was impressed with their Crosstown High School mural, which featured Ida B. Wells, and floated an idea to Williams and James.

“How cool would it be if Nisa and her dad, who it turns out, is an artist credited with developing North Memphis' airbrush style, [worked on this project together]?,” Stockwell asked them. “So we had them come out and take a tour of the Coliseum. And [our discussion of the mural] was like we were reading each other's minds.”

The family duo started planning for the mural in January, began painting in May, and installed the six outdoor panels in the heat of August with a small team of helpers. Williams and James drew inspiration from Memphis history, as well as their hopes for the future of the city.

Panel themes include basketballer and coach Larry Finch, civil rights attorney and judge Constance Baker Motley, and the 1991 People’s Convention, which was held at the Coliseum and advocated for the election of Memphis’ first Black mayor.

James said he wanted Williams to lead the project, since they were the one who landed the gig.

“This probably wouldn't have happened had Nisa not been friends with Marvin’s daughter, so I kind of looked at it as Nisa’s project,” he said. “I [worked] on it with her as her dad. I was pretty open about it.”

They both agreed that Williams is more of a planner when it comes to commissioned work, while James prefers to shoot from the hip.

“We were 50/50 through everything,” Williams said. “But there were certain things that were delegated more to one person than the other, just because of the skill set that each of us have. I try and plan really hard when it comes to not just me being the one who needs to be satisfied with artwork.”

Saving the Coliseum
The Mid-South Coliseum has occupied a space at the fairgrounds next to the Liberty Bowl since 1963, hosting a range of sporting events and concerts like the Beatles and Elvis until its closure in 2006.

Now it's part of the larger fairgrounds tourism development zone and revitalization effort.

Memphis can apply for a tourism development zone (TDZ) designation for areas of the city they want to revitalize. Memphis currently has three TDZ areas: Downtown, Graceland, and the Fairgounds.

A TDZ draws boundaries around a specific area then draws a baseline at the current level of tax revenue that's coming from that area. If it then gets any new or revamped attractions, businesses, or other development that caters at least in part to tourists, the tax revenue they generate above that set baseline goes into a fund earmarked for improvements inside the TDZ, like improved lighting and sidewalks.

The Memphis Fairgrounds TDZ where the Coliseum sits is bounded by Southern Avenue, East Parkway, Central Avenue, and Hollywood. The area is surrounded by several neighborhoods, including Orange Mound, Cooper Young, Glenview, and Castalia.

The Coliseum Coalition was “born out of a crisis,” according to Stockwell. In late 2014, plans for the TDZ included the demolition of the Coliseum. The Coalition formed in response to those plans and began working to save the historic building. They had the building inspected and were able to prove it would cost more to tear it down than to fix it up. Now, they’ve led over 100 tours for interested Memphians and have hosted two community cleanups with a team of 50 volunteers each time.

Art in the Family
James said he’s been making art for nearly 30 years, ever since he got a job airbrushing at Tees to Please in the Raleigh Springs Mall. He has encouraged Williams’ love of art but hasn’t pushed them in any one direction.

“I've been doing airbrush art, textile art, tattoo art, backdrops, motorcycle helmets, stuff like that, since ’92. I started to notice Nisa really getting into art in the ninth or tenth grade,” said James. “I went from giving her pointers here and there, to just leaving her alone because she's developing something. I don't want to influence what she's doing, she has her own style.”

As he’s been working with the Coliseum Coalition and another nonprofit called Friends of the Fairgrounds, Stockwell said what’s most important to these groups is creating a place tailored for the people who work and live nearby. They held a long-term input process to gather feedback from those families and individuals about what they wanted to see happen with the Coliseum and surrounding area.

“They said they want a safe, fair place where everyone can feel welcome. Where we can have healthy, family-centric amenities. They want a design that feels contiguous with their neighborhoods,” Stockwell said. 

“We don't mind if tourists love it too, but fundamentally, we want a space reimagined with Memphians in mind.”
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Read more articles by Sarah Rushakoff.

Sarah Rushakoff was raised in Memphis and is a graduate of White Station High School and the University of Memphis. She is a longtime member of Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe and works professionally as a graphic designer, writer, and photographer.