Cheatham refreshes Lexington mural

Over the last few weeks, Holmes County residents and other visitors to Lexington and Holmes County have noticed the "There's No Place Like Holmes" mural on the southeast corner leading up to the courthouse square has been restored and refreshed thanks to Holmes Community College Fine Arts Chair and Art Instructor Jay Cheatham.

The work was made possible from an AIM for CHangE (Advancing, Inspiring, Motivating for Community Health Through Extension) grant received by the City of Lexington from the Mississippi State University Extension Service. MSU received $5.5 million from the Centers for Disease Control Prevention.

The AIM for CHangE grant initiative goals include reducing obesity rates through a comprehensive approach that not only addresses issues within food systems, such as access to healthy foods, but also takes environmental and policy-level approaches to help communities address issues such as outdoor recreation, community walkability and educational programming.

A dozen of the state's 82 counties have adult obesity rates higher than 40 percent. Phase One of the grant targeted Holmes, Humphreys, Issaquena and Sharkey counties.

Lexington Mayor Robin McCrory and Holmes Community College President Dr. Jim Haffey approached Cheatham about updating the mural that was done originally created by the 1996 Holmes County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Class. Plans were to utilize Holmes students to complete the project but when COVID-19 forced students to do their classwork from their homes, Cheatham decided to tackle the project himself.

"I remember when it was originally painted back in 1996 and liked the idea of using murals for community rejuvenation and civic pride," said Cheatham. 

He said it took about a week to complete. "I would start at dawn and paint until the heat came up and then come back around 5:30 p.m. and paint until dark" he said. 

Cheatham has had a hand in either updating existing murals or done new ones in Yazoo City or Ackerman to go with the one in Lexington. He has done 15 total since this time last year including Southaven and Memphis.

"In 1996 I was contacted by the mayor of Yazoo City and painted my first true mural for their downtown, to help bring new life to the city," Cheatham said. "It's still there...a large train with happy children smiling. I don't know how many murals I have painted since then...several dozen. This year there has been a resurgence in interest for murals and I have painted all around the state."

Lexington received funds from the Mississippi Department of Transportation to work on Yazoo Street, where the mural is located, and other streets in town. Lighting has been installed along with brick walkways and the addition of benches and waste receptacles. 

"The state extension service believes that enhancing or refurbishing visual appearances of a destination or location can increase the attractiveness and traffic to an area," McCrory said of the AIM for CHangE grant. She said anything that is visually appealing can be connected to economic development in the area.

"I knew that I needed somebody who was an artist to work on that," she said. "You can't get lay people and volunteers. We were excited with Dr. Haffey's vision and seeing the need and allowing us to use Jay's services. We are looking forward to having that mural there for many years to come and increase the walkability of our downtown causing more people to come see us."

Lexington has a blue's marker on Yazoo Street, and she said it's important to beautify that area. "We just have so much connectivity to music, both gospel and blues that originated right here in Lexington. They performed many a night on Saturday night when I was growing up."

Raised gardens for the community will also be added as part of the grant. Components to build the beds, soil, seeds and fertilizer are included as well as well as fencing to protect it from wildlife, she said. 

Lexington has secured other grants to add in the beautification effort and the push for a healthier Holmes County. One of the areas receiving lots of attention is the Milton Lee Olive Park off Mulberry Circle, where a one-mile walking trail and playground equipment have already been installed. Plans are for a splash pad, an adult workout area and an outdoor classroom to be added at the park. Monies for this will come from Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the AIM for CHangE grant and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

"All of these changes increase the attractiveness of Lexington which can lead to more opportunities for economic development," said McCrory.