man looking at mural on brick wall

Somerset leader John Perkins recognized through downtown mural, #seemyset story series

Written, photo and video essays to be released in coming weeks

John Perkins has nev­er been one to dwell on the past.

In fact, he only looks there in grat­i­tude to the peo­ple who have sup­port­ed him.

As a young man, Perkins often vis­it­ed the old Vir­ginia The­atre, a venue where black patrons were required to sit in the bal­cony and there was no indoor restroom for their use. When asked about the sig­nif­i­cance of a mur­al of his like­ness paint­ed last week­end on the theater’s back wall, he says he stands on the shoul­ders of oth­ers who made his life eas­i­er, and sim­ply looks for­ward. To the post office across the street. The place where he built his future as a post­mas­ter and own­er of a suc­cess­ful bar­be­cue enter­prise.

African American man walking down downtown sidewalk
Pho­to by Lacy Hilliard: This pho­to of John Perkins tak­en for the #see­my­set sto­ry series inspired the mur­al.

 “When I was look­ing at the mur­al, it had a great sig­nif­i­cance for me,” Perkins said. “I think I told my wife that all the car­ri­ers load­ing their vehi­cles will come out the door and I’m fac­ing them. It means a lot.”

The new mur­al is part of a grow­ing ini­tia­tive by the City of Som­er­set to share sto­ries of influ­en­tial peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty. The #see­my­set sto­ry series will include writ­ten, pho­to and video essays on the city’s tourism web­site, seesomerset.com. Some of these may also include a mate­r­i­al artis­tic com­po­nent.

The idea for the series was born at the end of 2019, soon after the city unveiled its new brand and began work­ing on the web­site. With the desire to hon­or diver­si­ty across gen­der and race, Tourism Direc­tor Leslie Ikerd began iden­ti­fy­ing res­i­dents for the series.

Perkins, lov­ing­ly known to the com­mu­ni­ty as John­ny B., was first on the list.

“John­ny B. is the epit­o­me of the Som­er­set per­son we want to high­light,” Ikerd said. “He’s always pos­i­tive, he always has a smile on his face, always wel­com­ing. He is what I call a tourism ambas­sador. His sto­ry shows what Som­er­set is to our guests. He always con­tin­ued to move for­ward — nev­er bit­ter, always bet­ter. Those are the peo­ple we want to lift up and tell their sto­ry.”

The city part­nered with Wan­der­ing Elm Pho­tog­ra­phy’s Lacy Hilliard to take por­traits of Perkins and begin the sto­ry­telling process. The new tourism web­site launched in Feb­ru­ary. But soon after, when the world came to a halt because of a glob­al pan­dem­ic, so did the project, Ikerd said.

“Because of COVID-19, we need­ed to pause and turn our atten­tion to the virus, to the impact it was hav­ing on the com­mu­ni­ty and the local econ­o­my,” Ikerd said. “So we refo­cused our efforts on our #see­my­set LIVE! Face­book series and our local busi­ness­es and artists who were strug­gling. It’s the same con­cept, but we just need­ed to be telling a dif­fer­ent sto­ry at that moment.”

Turns out, paus­ing the project for a glob­al pan­dem­ic was quite serendip­i­tous. It was dur­ing that time Som­er­set artist Jere­my Scrim­ager began to notice a Louisville por­trait artist burn­ing up the art scene with murals on garage doors. Scrim­ager and Damon Thomp­son had mutu­al friends through the Som­er­set-Louisville arts exchange sis­ter city pro­gram — an ini­tia­tive of Som­er­set May­or Alan Keck and Louisville May­or Greg Fis­ch­er — and so, Scrim­ager decid­ed to con­tact him.

“Some­one rec­om­mend­ed I reach out to him about bring­ing him down,” Scrim­ager said. “We struck up a con­ver­sa­tion about the pos­si­bil­i­ty and slow­ly whit­tled down a date.”

To say Thomp­son was on fire with garage door murals is an under­state­ment. Six years pri­or, the Louisville res­i­dent and native switched from oil and can­vas por­traits to paint­ing with spray cans, prac­tic­ing on a wall he built in his back­yard. But he nev­er felt he had enough time to tru­ly per­fect his craft. After being laid off from his job in late March because of the pan­dem­ic, Thomp­son decid­ed to see if any­one would let him exper­i­ment on their garage. Between March 21 and May 8, he paint­ed 43 murals in dif­fer­ent loca­tions across Pos­si­bil­i­ty City.

Thomp­son had returned to work, still com­plet­ing one to two murals a week, when he heard from Scrim­ager about bring­ing his work to Som­er­set.

Doing so sup­port­ed Thompson’s belief that a community’s artists only get stronger if they engage with and learn from artists in oth­er com­mu­ni­ties — a con­cept Keck, Scrim­ager and Ikerd also believe in. 

“Part of our cul­ture is bring­ing in dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple, show­ing a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive as part of a vis­i­tor-based tourism approach,” Ikerd said. “We are still all Ken­tucky peo­ple; we have that com­mon thread amongst us. But this allows us to help build ambas­sadors for Som­er­set in oth­er com­mu­ni­ties and sup­port local artists by giv­ing them oppor­tu­ni­ties for growth.”

Thomp­son was game. “I told them, ‘If you can give me a good pic­ture and a wall, yeah, I can make it hap­pen,’” he said.

The city had already tak­en that good pic­ture, iron­i­cal­ly in front of the Vir­ginia The­atre. And the coun­try had since entered anoth­er chap­ter of cri­sis, one in which its black com­mu­ni­ty demand­ed jus­tice and free­dom from police bru­tal­i­ty and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Where this con­ver­sa­tion was hap­pen­ing in Som­er­set, one could find John­ny B. — offer­ing advice to local lead­ers in the wake of this unrest and lift­ing up his com­mu­ni­ty in the name of love and uni­ty.

When Scrim­ager approached Keck about the mur­al poten­tial and asked who should be fea­tured, the may­or imme­di­ate­ly knew: It would be of his friend John Perkins — suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur, com­mu­ni­ty leader and bridge-builder.

“There are times in life where you tear things down, trust­ing they’ll be rebuilt bet­ter than ever,” Keck said. “The sym­bol­ism between our work to rebuild the Vir­ginia into a place that’s more inclu­sive for all and John­ny B.’s endur­ing love for all peo­ple and our com­mu­ni­ty was too strong to ignore. I cher­ish our friend­ship and look to him often for guid­ance and wis­dom.”

And the wall? Two oth­er loca­tions fell through before the oppor­tu­ni­ty at the Vir­ginia pre­sent­ed itself the day before Thomp­son was sched­uled to arrive. Ikerd asked per­mis­sion to paint on the back of this icon­ic Som­er­set build­ing that is so sym­bol­ic of Perkins’s sto­ry, and the building’s own­er, the Down­town Som­er­set Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion board, vot­ed to approve her request.

The project had come full cir­cle.

Still, giv­en all that has hap­pened in his past, John Perkins looks ahead.

“It’s been an hon­or to be a part of what’s going on down­town,” Perkins said. “The may­or and the city coun­cil and every­thing that’s hap­pen­ing in this com­mu­ni­ty, I think we’re on the right road.

“With what’s going on in the world, with all the divi­sion, I think we’re unique here,” he con­tin­ued. “I think in my 72 years, we’ve come to the top of the hill. I see more promise as far as racial equal­i­ty than I’ve seen in my life. We’re so close that we shouldn’t let this moment get by.”

Vis­it our #see­my­set sto­ry series page to view the video sto­ry of John Perkins.

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