At first, the mural in Millicent Greason’s driveway appears to be just a swirl of happy colors.
But the more you look, the more you see.
If you let your gaze linger, words and images emerge: things like “Hope,” “Compassion,” “Resilience,” a Combat Wombat, a unicorn and a rocket ship.
Greason started working on it three years ago to use up some paint leftover from another project, and to get her through a personal upheaval. At that time, she started at the back of the house, and painted about halfway up the driveway.
Another upheaval, anxiety triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic, caused Greason to feel renewed interest in the mural and resume work on it.
“In early April, I went out and did sidewalk art with chalk, and thought, ‘Hey, I love my Ardmore neighborhood,’” she said. She wanted to give people a reason to smile.
Carrie Dickey is an artist, designer and marketer who lives in the neighborhood.
“I love this,” Dickey said. “I walk by it a few times a week. Great artist!”
Renegade Ninja Cowgirls
Back in the early 2000s, Greason was part of a team of two artists who descended upon Winston-Salem after 9/11, spreading visual joy and whimsy throughout the city with glittery, one-word signs: Laugh, Hope, Comfort, Art, Future, Tolerance. They called it “positive propaganda to combat negative thought pollution.”
Kelley Petersen, the other team member, died in 2009 of breast cancer, and the art community mourned her loss.
Petersen and Greason were early entrepreneurs and advocates in the Downtown Arts District. In 1990, Greason went to work the Urban Artware gallery on Sixth Street, where Delurk Gallery is now.
Greason bought Urban Artware in 1999 and ran it until 2011, when she closed it down. She continued waiting tables for a few years at Mary’s Gourmet Diner, where she had worked while simultaneously managing the art gallery.
She started work at Trader Joe’s shortly after it opened in 2013 and never stopped making art.
She took some leave from Trader Joe’s on April 13 to get a break from COVID-19 anxiety and people who defied the mask order and failed to practice social distancing.
“One of the best things I ever did was give myself time to breathe and heal,” she said. “It did a lot of positive things for me.” Greason, who was diagnosed with depression in her 20s, has learned how to manage her emotional health.
Situational things — like a global pandemic — can cause her anxiety to spike.
“I came home and said, ‘I am gonna paint some stuff.’ I would just go out every day and paint,” she said. People walking by suggested uplifting words to her.
“I did the word thing so I could interact with people. ... Everybody is so lovely and gracious. It’s been a really pleasant way to interact with people.
“I did the ruler first.” There is a ruler that shows what 6 feet is — the recommended social distance — on the sidewalk at the top of the driveway.
She took cues for the images from the driveway itself. “It has these awesome cracks in it, and part of it formed a rocket ship,” she said. There is also a unicorn eating cotton candy, planets and rainbows that follow the contours of the driveway cracks.
Greason shares a house with her brother, Tripp, a realtor. He lives in the front part, painted gray and white. She lives in the back, which she has decorated in festive colors and patterns.
“Our house is like a mullet,” she said. “It’s business in front and party in the back.”
Greason has returned to work at Trader Joe’s. She said that she enjoys the work and the customers but thinks that some don’t understand how their choices affects others.
She acknowledged that she’s a “renegade,” but in matters of health care, she’d rather err on the side of safety.
“If I play by the rules, then you know it’s serious,” she said, laughing. “I think people don’t think about the fact that they are coming in for 10-20 minutes, contaminating things and leaving, but we workers are there all day.”
She shows her care for others by wearing a mask, social distancing and making art.
“Painting the driveway was my stay-at-home Renegade Ninja Cowgirl project,” Greason said. “It’s been the thing that’s helped me the most with my anxiety.
“For me, especially, it’s so soothing to create these flowy lines and get lost in the flow of the paint. It’s a great escape. Some people read books, other people watch TV.
“I like to paint things.”
Katie Swayne, 15, and Nolan Kraft, 17, pass by Greason’s mural on their walks through the neighborhood.
“This is our regular walking route, so we’ve seen the driveway progress,” Katie said. “The first thing we saw was the ruler, and we’ve been coming by to see what’s new.”
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Nolan said.
“I wanted it to be childlike and fun,” Greason said. “It’s one of those things that is never going to be finished.”