Andee Rudloff brandishes a black Sharpie she’d just pulled from the front bib pocket of her paint-splattered Liberty overalls. “You’ll never ever see me without one of these,” she insists. “This is my main tool right here. I always have one, and that’s what I use most of the time. And anyone can. It’s a dollar. Maybe even less than a dollar. And you can use it on anything, and you’re not intimidated.”
This points to the big idea in Rudloff’s world where making art is the day’s plot: inclusivity. Anyone can participate. Anywhere. The many murals she’s designed and executed in collaboration with communities in Nashville and Southern Kentucky are standing proof. Her designs include images made by community members who also help paint the murals; it’s the work of many hands. “I’ve always thought that murals should be by, for, and reflect the community,” she says.
You’ll know a Rudloff mural when you see one — on a school wall, a fence, a retaining wall, or covering the entire side of a local business. The palette is vibrant and primary, with designs that feature geometrics, pictographs, hieroglyphics, and local iconography shaped with thick black lines. Her bright designs dance and swirl across walls in a funky, childlike freestyle all over East Nashville.
You’ll see Rudloff’s work at schools like Lockeland Design, where there are two projects on the back of the school facing the playground, one of which doubles as a climbing wall. Or stop by Warner Elementary and take in her murals on the back wall and retaining wall out front. Check out pieces she did in collaboration with the Explore Community School around the foundation of Fanny’s House of Music, with panels that read “Beauty is having the courage to be you.”
Denizens of Riverside Village will recall her mural on the Riverside Drive-facing wall of the former furniture store, one that featured East Nashville-themed images — Tomato Festival tomatoes, guitars, craftsman bungalows, the railroad bridge. The building was demolished in 2021, but not before Rudloff salvaged the ten-year-old mural, pulling off the painted metal panels one by one. They are now in storage waiting for what Rudloff hopes will be a new incarnation somewhere else, perhaps even as a re-purposed mural somewhere else in Riverside Village.
The joyful signature painting style is one Rudloff has developed over 25 years of making art. She cites influences like Keith Haring — for his use of thick black lines and collaborative projects, along with Myles Maillie and Red Grooms, known for their fabulous use of color and unconventional ways of working. “But also music,” she says. “On any given night you can go out and hear some of the best songwriters in the world and get these great visuals from their songs, and we have wonderful radio stations like WXNA and WNXP that I have on all the time. It’s really a kaleidoscope of influences.”
“I don’t want every wall. It’s not meant for me. There are certain little nuggets that are meaningful for me, and those are the ones that I go ‘yes’ to.”
Rudloff has had smaller works shown in regional galleries as well, but murals are her favorite projects; they are inherently inclusive, especially in terms of audience. “Murals definitely became more and more of how I worked, because all my friends worked, and all my family worked, and when I put something in a gallery they never saw it because they were working when the galleries were open,” she says. “So I started thinking, well, I know how to do this stuff. My mom renovated old homes, and I had a knowledge of the equipment, and I wasn’t afraid of heights. I looked at that as being a fun part of it. And I love, love, love that people take it in when it’s right for them to take it in.”
One of her early projects in Bowling Green, known as the Cow Mural, was painted on the side of an ice cream shop and featured cows working behind and sitting on stools at a shop counter enjoying some soft-serve. That iconic piece was used as a backdrop for videos that aired on CMT, which led to offers of mural work at Opryland Theme Park for Rudloff and brought her to settle in East Nashville.
“I’ve had some amazing opportunities to focus just on my work when it goes up, but I also love to connect people to the process,” Rudloff observes. “And you’re going to get a piece that’s even richer. People like seeing themselves too. I mean, they like what I do, but they also like seeing themselves in it. They see a way to do it, art isn’t such a mystery to them anymore, they start to see that it’s about storytelling.”
One of those stories was about making a neighborhood safer through art. In 2019, the Safe Amqui project incorporated a street mural into a traffic calming project designed in part by students in collaboration with Walk Bike Nashville. Motorists regularly traveled over 70 mph in front of the school and threw trash onto the grounds, so Rudloff and the students painted a mural on the tarmac outside the school and reclaimed a bus lane that cars had been using as a passing lane. “It was not only about slowing people down but showing that someone cared,” she says.
This inclusive approach to making art has developed over time. “I would say some of my first murals were a definitive idea that a client or a community-approved, then typically I would grid the drawing and we would literally do the mural square by square,” Rudloff says. “I always have invited the community to come paint with me, but in that period of time, I was having to say ‘You have to paint red here and yellow there and black here.’ But the way I work now is so different and so fun because you get to watch people really discover how this creative chaos happens.”
Now when the community comes to paint a mural that she has worked with them to design, she sees herself more as a facilitator. The first thing she does is encourage the participants to create meaningful icons, like pictographs and hieroglyphics. “These are images that have a deep meaning for us as individuals and when you see them all linked together, they have a voice individually and a voice collectively,” she says.
“Part-two of that is bringing in the idea of color theory. Don’t make color theory this thing that only art students and college students and artists can talk about. Make it something everyone can talk about. There’s no doubt in my mind that a five-year-old understands color theory. You just don’t underestimate them. They know how these colors connect. My idea is to remove the pressure of creating art, to have people give me these pictographs that they’ve created based on a question or idea, and link them together so that it breaks up the space in an interesting way.
“I choose the palette, but then I say to the kids ‘Pick any color. There are just two rules. Don’t paint over the black lines and don’t put the same color beside the same color.’ It’s something anyone who has ever sat down with a coloring book and box of Crayolas can do. My hope is that when they come back to it, they don’t only see their drawing; they see their choices, they see the choice they made to make something a certain way, and they are empowered by that.”
Rudloff also turns to art to help inspire people in the face of disaster. When the tornado struck East Nashville in 2020, it decimated a community mural she’d helped to paint with visiting artist Max Grimm on a fence facing Smith & Lentz on Main Street. Only one panel survived, and it featured the image of an eye. Rudloff took the panel and created a series of limited edition prints for sale to fund the eventual repainting of the mural and bringing Max Grimm back from Nashville’s German sister city Magdeburg to help. That project will happen once travel is safer post-COVID.
When tornadoes hit Bowling Green in December 2021, Rudloff felt the waves of trauma from East Nashville’s 2020 disaster rising up in her again. She returned to her hometown and set about painting the Bowling Green Strong mural with community members to help inspire the recovery efforts. “With a tornado, the whole landscape changes, and anything you can do within that landscape to find that moment of connection is super important,” she says.
Nashville walls are filling up with murals these days, and Rudloff hopes some of her work over more than two decades has helped inspire that interest in public art. “I don’t take every wall,” she says. “I don’t want every wall. It’s not meant for me. There are certain little nuggets that are meaningful for me, and those are the ones that I go ‘yes’ to.”
Rudloff is looking forward to more mural projects and collaborations in 2022. Her name is in the hat for some big civic projects and work will continue in schools as well.
“I love it,” she says. “It’s some of the best art. I tell you these kids dig in and have no fear. And I want to be the conduit. I want to be part of why another person understands art and the impact it can make in your life and others’ lives, and how it tells our story.”