Artist Billy Martinez at work.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet artist Billy Martinez as he was working on a mural on Nashville’s Elliston Place. Martinez has an art career that goes back decades and started his own publishing company, Neko Press, in 1997.
While his work in comics and magazines, as well as his stand-alone paintings, are bold and dramatic, often featuring powerful women, this mural is subtler but still just as bold, just as intense. It’s dominated by a black skyline. Rather than deliberately painting the Nashville skyline—in fact there are parking signs up and down Elliston he could have used as sketches, ones with Nashville’s infamous “Batman Building”—he offered a more generic view. And instead of lights he put it in total darkness. The only color, the only light, comes from behind the unbroken row of buildings. This makes the two figures at the edge, where the sidewalk and parking lot next to Smack Clothing, intersect, even more striking.
And the figures themselves are a study in contrasts. Johnny Cash, born in Arkansas, made Tennessee his home for most of his life. As a major figure in country music he’ll always be associated with Nashville and its history. He emerged from the darkness of a rural background in search of the spotlight and found it, and yet, interestingly, in the mural he’s somber, contemplative, focused on his music.
Bettie Page, on the other hand, is fierce and direct, fixing passers-by with her gaze. Former Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley wrote an appreciation of Page a few years before her death in 2008 and described her as someone who “who deflected the ravenous gaze of strokebook buyers with a look of defiant self-possession”.
Born in Nashville she, like Cash, sought the spotlight, but her career was shorter and she was an underground figure—a pinup girl and a Playboy playmate in the much more sexually conservative 1950’s. She retired from modeling and disappeared into obscurity. She would be “rediscovered” as a new cult following developed in the 1980’s. Although she would profit from her resurgence ater spending several years in poverty, unaware of her own fame, she herself still seemed to shun the spotlight.
It’s not available online but I remember she gave an interview for the Nashville Scene in 2005, when The Notorious Bettie Page hit theaters, but refused to be photographed. A picture that accompanied the interview showed only her hands.
All that makes this mural, seemingly so simple, and something most people will likely just walk by, an intersection of art and history.