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    At the corner of Market and Clay streets in NuLu, a patch of wildflowers climbs the brick exterior of the furniture store Red Tree. You can’t pick these wildflowers, which exist only as wall paint, but you can pose in front of them for the ’gram. And that’s exactly what muralist Liz Richter wants you to do.

    When Richter painted the wildflower mural two years ago, she infused it with symbolism — mint for NuLu’s hospitality and goldenrod for the ingenuity of one-time resident Thomas Edison. She chose these flowers because they push themselves through gritty sidewalk cracks and burst with beauty in unexpected places. “That represents me. Scrappy is the best word for how I came up in the art world,” Richter says. She’s self-taught (augmented by a “safety net” degree in art education from Southeast Missouri State University) but has mural experience dating back to the bedroom of her teenage years, where she painted a sunset for her own enjoyment. When she sees a wall in want of a mural, she drops a business card with the building owner and crosses her fingers. (Aboveboard mural painting is often one part creativity, two parts red tape, and Richter draws a stark line between her art and unsanctioned graffiti.)

    Richter's Hikes Point history mural (2016).

    The 33-year-old has spent much of the past decade teaching art in classrooms at Christian Academy of Louisville, KMAC and at various workshops and scholastic residencies throughout Louisville. Reflecting on the widespread paucity of arts literacy in Kentucky and beyond, Richter sees herself as an educator even when outside the classroom. “I always think, ‘What would a third-grader think of this? What would a kindergartener think of this?’” she says.

    With vestigial paint streaking her palms and numerous pairs of overalls sacrificed to the mural gods, Richter is not just scrappy, but dedicated. She has done many live-painting events and several permanent public-art pieces. Her Hikes Point mural is a visual history of the neighborhood, brought forward in time by a foregrounded clock that seems to radiate windmill arms of multi-colored triangles and rhombuses. At a Kroger across the river, a godlike hand cups a sunlit, utopian New Albany town square. And the side of Distillery America in west Louisville is now as colorful as the Hindu festival that gives Holi Gin its name. Wall by wall, Richter’s bright and maximalist aesthetic spreads visual joy. “If I do a piece of work on the street, I don’t feel like I own it afterward. It doesn’t belong to me,” she says. “The reason I was drawn to street art in the first place is because it’s not about me.”

    The Holi Gin distillery in west Louisville (2018).

    What is striking about Richter’s approach, besides her audacious color combos, is her unfussy attitude toward art appreciation (favoring aesthetic reaction over searching for hidden political meaning) and her allegiance to accessibility. “Galleries can be a little stuffy. I would just rather my work be where more people can see it,” says Richter, who is the September artist-in-residence at the South Central Regional Library’s COLLIDER program and is part of the Smoketown Imagine 2020 Mural Festival in October. “I guess it comes back to being a little rural kid who didn’t have access to any of that.”

    Growing up in Paducah, Richter didn’t take a single art class. Her first encounter with public art was in Louisville, when she and her family stayed at the Ronald McDonald House while her sister was hospitalized. “I remember feeling really scared. I’d never walked in a city before. And there was just a lot going on in my life,” Richter says, tearing up at the memory. In an underpass en route to the hospital, she saw her first mural: kids holding hands, all bright colors. “It immediately made me feel like: It’s OK for me to be here,” she says. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

    Just as street art connects to the identity of place, Richter says, her wearable art designs, frequently showcased at the annual KMAC Couture runway show, connect to individual identity. Her 2018 design, a clear jacket dotted with eyeballs — appropriated from the profile photos of her own social-media followers — reads “Don’t follow me, I’m lost too.” It is a visual representation of Richter’s ambivalence toward social media, though she does purposely create “photogenic” walls to solicit digital interactions. Her wearable designs include more than just profile pics: yarn, felt, leftover classroom materials. Her #Follow jacket was constructed from a used painting tarp.

    Richter live-painting a boat during Forecastle at Waterfront Park in July.

    Today, Richter is a proud resident of Clifton, a setting that has become both an art subject and a topic of inquiry for her work, inspiring a unit for her teaching residency with the Kentucky School for the Blind in the neighborhood. She brightens as she gestures at the colorful storefronts along Frankfort Avenue. “I have an intense emotional reaction to color,” she says. “There’s something so soothing to me about the idea that everywhere you’re looking is just this bright, joyful hue. I even love the word hue.” She recalls a college professor who decried bright colors as traditionally feminine, who “nearly lost it” when a classmate used glitter. “I was afraid to use bright colors for years,” Richter says. But now: “I don’t have time to do things that don’t make me happy.”

    This originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Wall to Wall.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo by Joon Kim, Other photos courtesy of Liz Richter.

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