New mural celebrates Alabama literary giants by Dennis Washington

Johnna Bush stands next a new mural she painted in downtown Monroeville to honor Monroe County's status as Alabama's Literary Capital. (Dennis Washington / Alabama NewsCenter)

Johnna Bush spends most of her days painting portraits, but when the Grove Hill studio artist got a call from a friend about plans for a new mural in downtown Monroeville, she stopped and listened.

“I really believed in this project because I believe what they’re telling and preserving is so important,” Bush said. “This is a wonderful teaching tool for the children.”

Monroeville mural celebrates Alabama’s literary giants from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Monroeville Main Street asked area artists to submit ideas for two murals: one honoring Truman Capote and the other honoring his childhood friend Harper Lee and eight other writers whose work earned Monroe County the designation as Alabama’s Literary Capital. After a few weeks of thinking, reading and drawing in her head, Bush painted her suggestions and sent them to the judges at Monroeville Main Street. Both of her ideas were selected.

“I was blown away by the detail on the Capote mural, but the precision she put in and the representation of the writers in the literary capital mural is exquisite,” said Anne Marie Bryan, executive director of Main Street Monroeville. “When she put that Pulitzer Prize on the bottom shelf and framed it with the three Monroeville writers that won it, I was just in awe.”

Bush completed the Capote mural in 2018 and then got to work on the literary capital mural. After months of fundraising and planning, Bush began painting the outside wall of 29 Pineville Road in October 2020. She worked night and day using a lift and chalk line to hand-draw the bookcase, followed by a projector and ladders to project each segment on the wall to be sketched.

“After that it was pretty straightforward,” Bush said. “It took about seven days to paint after it got drawn on the building. It’s a little bit of a trompe l’oeil feel to it in that it’s rather three-dimensional. It gives you the feeling that it’s a hole in the wall.”

The finished work features a bookcase honoring the works of Lee, Capote, Rheta Grimsley-Johnson, Riley Kelly, William Barret Travis, Cynthia Tucker, Hank Williams, Mark Childress, Mike Stewart and Marva Collins. Bush simply calls it “Literary Giants.”

“Nobody ever sees the agony of what’s going on inside your head or the research, but when you can say ‘Yes, this is what I was thinking,’ it’s very gratifying,” Bush said. “I didn’t want it to immediately reveal itself, but if they will come and ask questions, they’re going to be shockingly pleased about what was really accomplished here.”

“It amazes me that she painted that mural in less than three weeks,” Bryan said. “She is such a talented artist.”

The mural is a natural complement to the Literary Capital Sculpture Trail unveiled in 2019. The trail features 14 bronze sculptures – one for each of the 10 writers, one to represent the Pulitzer Prize won by three of the writers and a second sculpture for Lee, Capote and Tucker. Bryan said this new mural is just another reminder that anyone can do very big things, even when you come from a small town.

“It is important when school children walk the square that they be able to learn a little bit about each of these writers because you never know when the next poet is in the group or the next artist,” Bryan said. “These writers have proved that.”