When local graphic artist Sam Mays died Feb. 7, a variety of community members felt the loss of their dear friend, co-worker and creative “genius” behind one of Blue Plum Festival’s most inspired public participating events.
On Friday night, those same people steadily made their way into Nelson Fine Art Gallery to pay homage to Mays, his life’s work and to celebrate the dedication of an urban art school to be named The Sam Mays School of Urban Art.
Knowing Mays for about 10 to 12 years, Becky Mallory said she was very close to the young graphic artist, and even gained permission from Mays’ mom upon his graduation from East Tennessee State University to be his “on-site mom.”
“I used to be in Dick’s gallery here. I would teach art lessons and Sam would come in every day and he was so inspiring and so good to my students and took ... part in what they were doing, and encouraged them,” Mallory said. “I taught art in public schools for 31 years and Sam was probably one of the most creative geniuses I ever knew. He was definitely amazing and has left us with so many ... things that were just him.”
She said his work and formation of the Blue Plum Festival’s Urban Art Throwdown as well as the idea for the urban art school are just two of Mays’ many contributions.
Mays and tattoo artist Travis Wasko worked to start the Throwdown at Blue Plum.
Mays “was the brainchild of all of these things and then we were the people there to ... make it happen,” Mallory said. “I’m very delighted that we can name the school after Sam.”
Susan Rhea said she came out Friday night to honor Mays.
“He worked with me, our group with the Umoja Committee and for the last two years he’s worked on our ... posters that we use and the logos and our T-shirts,” Rhea said. “He was just very ... creative.”
As Graffiti Hurts chairwoman with Keep Johnson City Beautiful, as well as director of redevelopment with the Washington County Economic Development Council, Shannon Castillo said she was still wrapping her mind around all of the different organizations and businesses that Mays touched, either with his involvement or with his artwork.
“You never know what you have until it’s gone. You never expect someone so young to pass away so quickly,” Castillo said. “We’ve heard stories upon stories of where he was creating things for people and not charging them.”
Castillo said she had known Mays for about 13 years and that while those in the community are saddened by the loss of their friend, his death has inspired excitement about urban art and the urban art school.
“We’re going to be partnering with Moral Kombat and they work with at-risk kids that have been in the court system,” Castillo said. “What we hope is that The Sam Mays School of Urban Art will be a track for some of these kids to choose ... for their service-learning hours.”
Eva Hunter, director of Keep Johnson City Beautiful, said Mays and Wasko’s original goal was to promote art with positive mentors.
Hunter said while Mays did create and come up with many programs and ideas that will continue on without him, she said he would never have considered that he was leaving a legacy.
“Sam loved life to the fullest and he lived it every day. I’ve been told he didn’t even like to sleep because he was afraid he’d miss life,” Hunter said. “I think that’s what is really great about it, is that we can stand here and appreciate him in this manner tonight and carry on his dreams.”