An autographed poster by painter Varnette Honeywood from the 1990 National Black Arts Festival hangs in muralist Ashley Dopson’s living room. Family visits to the festival inspired her own interest in art. “That era was a time when people were very aware of the legacy of Black art,” Dopson, 37, says. “For a little girl like me, I felt like I could do this and make a living at it.”
In high school, a teacher introduced her to the work of Harlem Renaissance artists, and she began creating figurative paintings inspired by them, using thick oils and acrylics. She paid special attention to texture so that her grandmother, who had lost her vision to glaucoma, could feel the lines in her work.
Dopson studied art at Hampton University, and her paintings got bigger and bigger. Driving home, she’d strap large canvases on the roof of her car. When she ran out of money for canvas, she used scrap wood.
Murals came into her life after college while she was teaching kids in underserved areas—both in Hampton and in Atlanta. She taught science by having students paint the Milky Way or layers of soil. Later she began installing murals in their schools. Nowadays, she’s balancing a dozen commissions in different neighborhoods while also raising her daughter and teaching at S.L. Lewis Elementary School in College Park.
“I’m not a wanderer; I’m an art evangelist,” Dopson says. For her, murals are about community. Whenever she starts a new project, she walks around the neighborhood and talks to longtime residents about what and who they want to see celebrated. Often, neighbors pick up a brush and help out. Current and former students also follow her on Instagram and come out to paint.
“We’re such a celebrity-obsessed culture. It’s important that we get out of that and recognize the celebrities around us,” Dopson says.
Lately, she’s been adding textiles in her smaller work, using remnants from high-end interior designers. For example, in one portrait, the late Cicely Tyson wears a crown of purple flowers made from vibrant cloth. The artist plans to use textiles in murals soon.
She recently wrapped up a residency at MINT Gallery and has murals slated for Black Coffee ATL, McNair Middle School, along Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, and other places. “People want to be around art,” she says. “It encourages people to invest in homegrown products and services. It initiates conversation and gives the general morale a boost. When you see thriving neighborhoods, you see murals.”
This article appears in our Summer 2021 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.