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Meet Chris Johnson, the man behind a 5-story tall mural in downtown Columbus

Chris Johnson, covered in sweat, multiple colors of paint and donning a yellow shirt, diligently brushed away at the top of a construction lift Tuesday afternoon.

A dark pair of sunglasses protect his eyes, and a mark of black paint sits just below his nose, probably from his blue surgeon’s gloves, which are also covered in black paint. Just like his hat.

The temperature is mild (for a Georgia summer), as heavy clouds offer a much-needed break from the brutal sunlight. Johnson’s 3,500-square foot project is close to being done.

Johnson, muralist and a professor of art at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia, was tasked with completing the massive five-story mural on the river side of Heritage Tower, which sits between Broadway and First Avenue.

He started painting on July 18 and hopes to complete the project, which he calls the largest mural he’s ever painted, by the weekend.

The mural is an abstract painting on the history of Columbus, Johnson said.

“(Columbus) has always been known as this kind-of frontier town,” Johnson said.

The mural is based off of “Mrs. Columbus,” from the fountain at Lenora Sarling Memorial Park. The fountain, dedicated in 1929, is dedicated to the memory of Sarling, who was a leader in civic, social and religious circles in Columbus. The fountain, like Johnson’s mural, looks “forward, with an eye to the past” he said, a reflection on the history and heritage of the city.

Mrs. Columbus was not the only initial option.

Ernie Smallman, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, reached out to Chris about a mural for the building in early June. There was no concrete plan, Johnson said, so he came up with six rough sketches. After Smallman and Johnson reviewed the six, they settled on the sketch of Mrs. Columbus, which is nearly finished.

The mural has taken much more work than it appears to the naked eye. Beneath the white paint currently on the building are another two to three layers of base coat. Johnson has gotten pretty lucky with the weather, but heavy showers rolled through early afternoon Tuesday. Thunderstorms are expected to continue into Tuesday night, but the forecast predicts the rest of the week to see mostly sunny weather.

And when Johnson calls the mural the “biggest he’s ever painted,” he’s not exaggerating. Johnson stands anywhere between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-11, and he said just the head of Mrs. Columbus is about his height.

“You can see (the mural) from blocks away,” Johnson said. “I heard you can actually see it from Alabama.”

As far as grand-opening ceremonies, Johnson said he’s unsure whether one will happen. Right now, he’s focused on finishing the enormous painting.

Johnson received a bachelor of fine arts from Clemson University and a master of fine arts from University of South Carolina. He has taught at Andrew College since 2013 and is the director of the visual arts program.

To learn more about Johnson’s work, visit his website chrisjmfa.com.

Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.
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