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A Gratitude-Inspired Mural Brought This Community Together

by Cinnamon Janzer

Two students paint on a wall outdoors
Photo Credit: Jennifer Bowman
Students taking part in the Pennyroyal Arts Council Art Camp add to a mural inspired by “A Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”.

Ross Gay’s poetry book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude spurred murals, conversations, and connection in this small Kentucky city.

From tiny bees and a corduroy couch to a barefoot woman in a gaudy dress and a baggie of dreadlocks found in a drawer, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a celebration of—and a meditation on—the transient nature of life on earth, guided by the lessons offered by gardens and orchards.

It’s this book of gratitude that anchored Hopkinsville, Kentucky’s ninth NEA Big Read last year. Inspired by the contents of Gay’s pages, a local artist and a cadre of youth arts campers created a mural on the side of the Hopkinsville Brewing Company. Artist Jennifer Bowman guided 15 or so local high school students through the process of creating a garden-inspired mural on a paint-smattered background overarched by a towering sunflower.

“I really love the fact that it has given the folks who live in the senior apartment building something aesthetically beautiful.”

Jennifer Brown, co-founder and editor of the Hoptown Chronicle
A mural showing text from a poem, many trees, and a sunflower
Photo Credit: Pennyroyal Arts Council
Local students painted a mural as a part of the Pennyroyal Arts Council Art Camp.

“For the last three or four summers, the Pennyroyal Arts Council has sponsored a summer camp to have local students paint a mural somewhere in town. It’s not always connected to the Big Read, but this year it seemed natural to illustrate [the book selection] because the cover is just beautiful and colorful,” explains Jennifer Brown, co-founder and editor of the Hoptown Chronicle and a Big Read committee member. “I really love the fact that it has given the folks who live in the senior apartment building [adjacent from the mural] something aesthetically beautiful to be the background of their little spot in downtown Hopkinsville.”

A man of medium light skin tone poses in front of a colorful mural and words from his poem Wedding Poem.
Photo Credit: Pennyroyal Arts Council
Ross Gay poses in front of a mural inspired by his poetry on the side of the Hopkinsville Brewing Company.

One of the most special elements of the mural was its September 7th dedication because Gay himself was present. It’s his presence and how touched he seemed to be by both the mural and the interest in his work that made the day stand out, says Brown. “One thing I noticed was how genuinely touched he seemed to be by the use of his words incorporated into the mural,” she adds. “He seemed really taken with it and it was so great to have him there. This was the first time we’ve ever had the author in person.”

Dozens of community members came together for both the mural dedication and a meet and greet with the author that followed at the Alhambra Theatre across the street. Free copies of Gay’s book were available to the first 100 attendees. Ten gratitude boards—blackboards on which community members were encouraged to inscribe their own words of gratitude—lingered in the lobby before being subsequently distributed around town after the event concluded. In total, roughly 500 copies of the book have been distributed throughout the community, including at events in local schools.


After Gay read passages of his book, Francene Gilmer, executive director of the Christian County Literacy Council and a Big Read committee member, moderated a question-and-answer session between Gay and the audience. Delight is the lingering feeling Gilmer remembers from the evening. “He read a couple of pieces from the book, and you could feel his emotion in it. You could see his delight with the people who asked questions. He was just a really down to earth person,” she says.

One audience member asked Gay if he had always wanted to be a poet. Perhaps surprisingly, his answer was that he had wanted to be a football player, describing himself as “not a school kid”. Brown felt like that response endeared him to the crowd and helped questions flow from there.

“One thing I was taken with was how I had a deeper understanding of the meaning of his words when he read them as opposed to when I read them myself from the book,” Brown says. “It gave me much more of an appreciation. I went back and read more of his poetry afterwards, which I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. I suspect that was true for others who were there that night.”

In one way, the evening concluded with Gay signing books, staying until the very last one had been signed and having authentic conversations with every person along the way. But in another way, the experience hasn’t really ended at all: community members are still requesting copies of the book daily across Hopkinsville, garnering exactly the interest that Big Read is all about.