By Wendy Kilmer
Photography by Beth Dukes
“Abilene’s theme color is brown,” said artist Stephanie Prosser with a joking smile. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
The case could be made that it’s not anymore. In the larger downtown area, at least 10 eye-catching murals splash color along previously monotone building walls. Most weren’t there as recently as two years ago.
“I don’t think there’s a painter in Abilene who hadn’t tossed around the idea of murals at some point,” Prosser said. “Abilene is such a great blank canvas for it.”
Prosser, however, did more than imagine it. In August 2016, just months after launching her nonprofit organization, Palette of Purpose Inc., she began the Abilene Mural Project, pushing past the unspoken assumption that it just wouldn’t work.
“I got this vibe when we started that it wasn’t possible,” Prosser said. “But we didn’t find that all. We got nothing but support along the way. We went through the landmarks commission, the preservation league, the city, wanting to be very respectful of the historical aspect.
“What we learned is that the boogeyman is not out there. If you have an idea, find the right channels and shoot for the stars.”
That philosophy has guided Prosser’s work and passion.
She grew up in a military family, landing in Abilene at age 8 and staying through high school. After high school she eagerly headed away from her hometown without a thought of staying in Abilene permanently. Stints living in Denton and Austin provided the thriving arts scene she craved, but Prosser said something was missing.
“I matured and grew up, and though I loved both places, they lacked a sense of home,” she says.
Her return to Abilene brought that sense of home, and as her family grew, so did her passions. Prosser met her husband, Tim, in Abilene when both worked for KTXS and their son, Sebastian was born in 2009. His diagnosis with autism sent Prosser diving headfirst into a world of non-profit and disability-based organizations.
“It was new territory, and I needed to get connected to help my family,” she said. “I started volunteering at disability non-profits and saw great stuff – people coming together, mission-minded, passionate to help and serve in some way.”
Being immersed in both the non-profit world and the art community in Abilene, connecting the two seemed an obvious next step. Initially, that took the form of Prosser selling her own art to benefit non-profit organizations.
“I threw myself into the artist community like a bar fly; I just showed up to everything and asked questions,” she said. “In disability non-profits, you’re always looking to fill gaps, and I realized a huge gap in the art community was for more togetherness and community.”
“Non-profits live and thrive by community, that’s what keeps us going. As artists we kind of keep to ourselves until our work is ready to go on display, when really the process is the most important part. We’re all in our houses sweating, doubting ourselves; it’s an emotional experience, and that gets lost sometimes.”
Prosser began monthly meetings for Abilene-area artists to come together and share experiences. It started as a way to communicate about various public art projects and requests but ended up having the feel of a support and mentoring group, Prosser said.
“I found that there were many artists not doing what they wanted to do with their own art, or their art careers. There was a gap between budding and emerging artists, and the professional artist community,” she said. “I heard from and saw artists struggling with their own fears and worries as artists, lack of resources, lack of professional knowledge and lack of business savvy to further their careers. I thought, I’m going to take the spirit of what I’m already doing and make it both a platform to build opportunities from and a connecting bridge for local artists. And I believed, if I build it, they will come. And they did.”
In August 2016, as the mural project launched, Palette of Purpose’s public call for artists attracted a large number of artists wanting to be involved. To date, Palette of Purposes has about 20 artists involved on a regular basis.
“I have artists who have day jobs and want to pursue art, even older artists finding a new youthful passion, and it’s so cool to watch people who just need a little nudge. For those things to happen, it just takes someone putting themselves out there,” Prosser said.
Spreading Art and Inspiration
The steady progression of murals in key locations around town was one of the most obvious ways that Palette artists had the chance to put themselves out there.
“Colorful Bull” on the Honeytree Building on N. 2nd Street downtown, painted by local artist Shay “Pono” Mac, kicked off the project. Since that time, Palette of Purpose has been involved with about 10 murals around town by seven different artists.
One of those artists is Patrick Messersmith. He’s painted two murals, one downtown (on the corner of North 2nd Street and Cedar Street, across from the library) and one at the SoDA District Courtyard. He volunteers at Palette of Purpose events, serves on the Board of Directors and helps with project management.
“I believe in the mission – to engage the Abilene community with art, provide exposure for artists, and to support the arts in the entire community for all ages,” Messersmith said. “Palette of Purpose has allowed me to showcase my art and ideas on a large scale. It’s allowed me to meet and collaborate with new artists and members of the community who care about art.”
His first mural, named “Haunted by Waters” is inspired by the idea of water swirling around your feet when you wade into a river.
“Many of the most spiritual and moving experiences in my life have happened in or around a river, and I wanted to showcase that spirit and movement in my mural,” Messersmith said. “Imagine you’re knee deep in a cold, moving river. You look down and the light reflects off the rippling water, the glimmering blues and greens giving way to hints of the rocks beneath your feet. I hope viewers can feel the simultaneous movement and calm of the water and rocks.”
The murals may be the most visible product of Palette of Purpose but the organization promotes art and connects artists in several other ways.
Finding common ground between seemingly disparate groups is one of Prosser’s main goals, specifically aiming to bring businesses together with the art world.
“The business world may not have an art mindset, and they need to see how that can be a part of their lives,” Prosser said. “Businesses have a lot to offer the art world. A guy in construction once said ‘I have nothing to offer to art world,’ and I asked ‘Do you have scrap wood? Nails? Extra metal? That’s sculpture supplies.’”
Tim Smith, owner of Firehouse Fitness, was already partnering with Palette of Purpose through their art in the SoDA district when he saw another connection point. He noticed that Abilene Glass and Mirror had some equipment that Palette of Purpose could use and reached out to ask for their involvement.
“We provided an Aerial Boom lift for so they could paint a mural downtown,” said Braden Nelson, vice president of Abilene Glass and Mirror. “By letting them borrow equipment, we were at that point helping just a little bit with the growth of Abilene.
They provided something for all of us, not just Abilene Glass. Anyone driving past the murals are instantly drawn to them. Not only are they helping other artists, but they are making these once very old buildings into something much better.”
In addition to sharing resources, Prosser also wants to help businesses see how to incorporate art into their work.
“Art is a great marketing and teamwork tool,” she said. “It’s also a creative way to express yourself to the public as a business, or for community outreach, whether that be something visual such as a mural, or through sponsorship of a public project, program, or art installation. Company art workshops can be a great morale lift and teambuilding experience for your employees. There are so many ways businesses can utilize artists and art that creates a win-win for both.”
Palette of Purpose offers artistic and creative workshops for private groups as well as the public and organizes monthly artist meetings to provide encouragement, mentorship, networking and professional growth.
“Coming back to Abilene and starting to get involved with non profits, I saw that young people would have a better appreciation for what we have here if they connect,” Prosser said. “It’s about nurturing passions. For me, that’s art, but there are so many other things in Abilene that people are doing within their own communities. If young people find their sense of purpose, they learn to grow wherever they are. Abilene is a great place to do that. There’s a great spirit of collaboration and people who want to connect.”
While it’s not the only project, the murals may be the most visually impactful for the city.
“It’s a big powerhouse project, accessible to everybody, and everyone can share in it,” Prosser said. “Downtown has an art culture and community; that’s our hub – lots of art and creative entities down there. It’s a draw for tourism and for locals.”
Allison Causey, technology marketing manager for the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau, also is also involved with the Abilene Downtown Association. She was introduced to Palette of Purpose through that association but also at the ACVB when out-of-town visitors stop by the office. Many want help finding all the murals and use them as photography backgrounds.
“Everyone I have talked to has loved them or has gotten excited when I let them know about them,” Causey said. “The murals brighten downtown spaces that might not otherwise be as vibrant.”
Causey said one visitor commented, “It’s like a treasure hunt, finding these incredible works of art scattered throughout the town. There’s sometimes no rhyme or reason why it is placed there, but then all of a sudden this amazing image appears.”
Although not all the murals around town have been planned through Palette of Purpose, their successful initiative emboldened other artists. Sheila Kitts, graphic designer at 3rd Street Printing and Sign Co. painted a mural on the 3rd Street building in 2017.
Kitts’ mural has a theme of “Live Free” inspired by the question she posed to friends on her Facebook page: “What makes you feel free?” She incorporated many of the responses she received into the mural – clouds, the ocean, music, hot air balloons, and more.
“I loved being out there painting and getting energy from those who walked by,” Kitts said. “They encourage you and cheer you on, and it felt great. Now, I love walking from the shop to McKay’s Bakery for breakfast. On the way back, I turn the corner and the mural’s color bursts off the wall in the morning sunlight and makes the whole scene happier. From that perspective, it is the only color in a sea of brown and grey. It makes me very proud and I hope it brightens the morning of others, too.”
3rd Street owner Leif Merck had seen some of the Palette of Purpose murals popping up around town, and when Kitts showed interest in taking on the challenge, he agreed to give her the opportunity.
“I can say without a doubt that I would not have created the mural without the vision and inspiration of the Palette of Purpose organization,” Kitts said.
Becoming a Business
Palette of Purpose recently restructured from a non-profit organization to a for-profit business but with the same mission and goals.
“Palette of Purpose Inc. the business maintains it’s same community driven mission, and that will never change,” Prosser said. “Changes in this process are minimal, with the benefit being we can continue to serve the community more efficiently, and in a variety of ways with fewer restrictions. We want to ensure that Pop Inc. is ever evolving and flexible for expansion.
“Our community is wanting art and art services, and artists are wanting to provide those in new and unique ways, and Palette of Purpose Inc. is a fantastic vehicle to provide those. It’s a business with a heart.”