It’s the first day of a hot, Southern July, and tomorrow Adam Schrimmer will be suspended several yards off the ground in the midday heat doing what he loves best:
painting a mural. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” he laughs, describing the physical nature of the job. Adam relishes it, though—the rush that comes with executing a project that balances precision with risk.
Throughout his adult life, Adam has worked as an artist to varying capacities, but mural painting has always held a special place. “I’m comfortable with the scale. I’m comfortable drawing from my shoulder.” The demands of creating huge public works are suited not only to his style but to his ethos as an artist. Adam’s murals aim to take up space—both physically and socially—giving voice to the values of surrounding communities.
Schrimmer keeps a clipboard on the center console of his truck. He knows that when creativity calls, he’s got to be ready. “I have a lot of ideas,” he explains. “It’s important to get them out of my brain in order to make room for more.” Earlier this year, his console clipboard caught an idea that led to his latest mural project. Adam was tuned into NPR’s The World, listening to an interview about current critical events when something the interviewee said struck a chord. “I’m paraphrasing but [he said], ‘As a human being in today’s world, you are obligated to imagine a better future.’” When moved by a quote or a poem, most of us might share it on social media or text it to a friend. But Adam? “I immediately began looking for a wall to paint this statement on.”
The radio quote sparked a fuse of ideas in Schrimmer’s brain. “I began thinking about mycurrent portfolio: the quotes I use, the messages I push.” Those messages are centered on equality and social progress, modeled in works like his mural of Maya Angelou accompanied by her edifying words, “We are all more alike than we are unalike.” Adam wanted to move the message of equality even further with his work. “I had a thought—Who am I to speak for others? Who would people listen to [and] learn from? How can I continue this conversation with my community?” So, he took to his clipboard, writing down names of local writers, folks whose powerful words reflect a spectrum of regional narratives. Folks like Moody Black and Kimberly Gibbs—who Adam works with through the MAC-funded SmartArts program. He pulled over to text Kimberly his idea of marrying the work of the local poets of her nonprofit group, Wit’s End Poetry, with his showstopping public art. Adam’s clipboard moment spawned OneGVLArts, a social equity movement whose purpose he asserts is “to give voice to the oppressed, create a platform for the underserved, and to allow the conversations of equality, race, and the experience of life.” The project has put up five murals since June, all poems centered around diversity, equality, and the experiences of people of color. “Doing this project represents where his heart and soul is,” says collaborator and local poet Moody Black, “in making the world a better place.”
Adam was 12 when he painted his first mural. Still, his present reality feels like a dream to him. “I couldn’t have known that this is where I would end up,” he says. The seed of community work has been in Schrimmer since that first mural project, done in a daycare in his native Connecticut. That seed has taken root through several projects since. A few years back, the artist embarked on a people-driven mural project in Greenville’s Poe Mill neighborhood. He was in the community, getting to know and connecting with residents. Out of that natural inclination to meet and grow with others, the “Radiate Positive Vibes” mural was born. Adam held a meeting at Poe Mill Baptist Church, facilitating the voices and opinions of Poe Mill’s residents, then set up a community paint day when plans were finalized. From start to finish, the process not only involved the people of Poe Mill, but it was also led by them. The experience galvanized his process and was the springboard for forming his business, Blank Canvas Mural Company. “That neighborhood and its community changed my life,” he says of Poe Mill. “I’m a community-engagement artist at heart.”
Maybe you’ve seen one of Schrimmer’s murals while driving around town. They’re all over the Upstate, with a total of more than 50 murals painted in the last few years, including one for Facebook in North Carolina. While a lot of these works are commercial commissions—at Birds Fly South Ale Project, Clemson’s School of Architecture, or the new collage of historic Greenville imagery in the Haywood Mall—Adam devotes a lion’s share of his time to non-commercial community-engagement work through the Communities of Opportunity Mural Program (COMP). COMP is a partnership between Schrimmer, The Greenville Housing Authority (TGHA), and the City of Greenville. “Working with the housing authority was a milestone project,” he says.
Through COMP, Adam created a mural on the Gallery of West Greenville, an Equal Housing development through TGHA. “I met with community members; they decided on the direction of the painting.” He wound up giving the reins to a few of those community members—young artists Nick Burns, Katie Law, and TriniQua Darity—whose talent Adam took note of. “The only thing I ever did for these artists was express that I believed in them, gave encouragement, and shined light on how talented they really were. I opened a door, and they charged through it.”
Under Adam’s guidance, the community planned and finished the entire painting over the course of one day. The unity already exists in these communities. The talent, too. It’s just that Adam, as his colleague Kimberly Gibbs attests, “has a wonderful ability to connect with students from all walks of life and to guide them in discovering their own artistic talents. He steps in with his guidance and expertise, then all he has to do is show up with some paint and watch the sparks fly.”
If there’s one defining trait of any mural, it’s the scale. That, combined with the public nature of the art, results in one important ingredient for any social change: visibility. Adam Schrimmer knows who he is in the fight for equality, acknowledging that “because I was born a white man, that I was born into privilege.” It’s what’s possible because of and beyond that privilege that Adam works for. His goal is that his work—with OneGVLArts, COMP, and any future community engagement—will “give the oppressed a voice, until there is no more oppression.” By accessing these big, prominent public spaces and teaching folks how to paint their lives in bold, Adam helps bring visibility to places that might otherwise be systemically invisible. “It’s about identity,” he urges. “We are human. We all bleed red. Treat human beings like human beings . . . and respect the diversity that makes a community so great.”