Erin Miller Wray (’09)
When Lady Vols legend Candace Parker—who graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 2008 and is now with the WNBA’s Chicago Sky—was featured in the NBA 2K20 series, she said she wanted to do a project in Knoxville with a local woman artist to honor the spirit of Pat Summitt and the legacy of the downtown community that had been erased by urban renewal. A logical choice for reinvigoration was the outdoor basketball court at the Cal Johnson Recreation Center on Hall of Fame Drive, named after Cal Johnson (1844–1925), who had risen from slavery to become a wealthy racetrack and saloon owner and a prominent businessman and philanthropist.
Enter Erin Miller Wray, a Los Angeles–based muralist who specializes in large-scale public artwork for community beautification, branded content, commercial use, outdoor advertisement, and social media installations. A 2009 UT graduate, she had been a student when Parker led the Lady Vols to the 2007 and 2008 national titles.
“The 2K Foundations, who fund NBA 2K community projects, pitched me to Candace as someone who is connected to Knoxville and could take input from the members of the community and pay homage to its history,” said Wray.
Starting in April 2020, Wray gathered input and drew ideas for design concepts.
“Candace had ideas on color. She wanted it to be bright, uplifting, powerful, and bold—evoking strength and femininity, but something everyone could enjoy. She wanted quotes from Pat Summitt, and we discussed an overarching tribute to the community.”
Wray talked with Renée Kesler, president and CEO of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center and former director of community development for the City of Knoxville.
“The biggest thing for Renée was to honor the legacies of the people who have come from this community,” said Wray. “We wanted to honor the past, present, and future of this community,” whose history includes Cal Johnson, poet Nikki Giovanni, artists Beauford and Joseph Delaney, and the Beck family, who founded an orphanage and the cultural center that bears their name.
“It blew my mind to gain the knowledge of people that changed the lives of so many,” said Wray. “It was important to both Renée and me that their story be heard through this artwork. She shared with me that this community has had things done to them and for them, but this project was important to be done with them. We wanted to create a piece that belonged to the community and they felt investment in. We wanted the children of this community to be excited about this artwork.
“Art is a powerful way to draw people in,” she added. “More people are likely to engage with a building or brand painted with original artwork. It raises curiosity, conversation, and, most importantly, engagement. Seeing something hand painted draws people in and gets them excited. And when they are involved in the installation itself, there is a sense of ownership in that piece.”
Wray’s unique approach to public art has come from being drawn in two directions—toward both acting and visual art.
“Who I am today is a culmination of my two worlds colliding,” she said. “I’ve always had a love of color and authenticity in art, in part from growing up outside of of Memphis. But there’s always been a performance element about my life.”
Growing up in leafy Germantown, Tennessee, Erin Miller shot up to five feet, seven inches early and was a post player until others caught up.
“Basketball was my sport,” she said. She played intramurals at UT and still plays in adult recreational leagues in Los Angeles.
At Germantown High, she focused on TV and theater, anchoring the school’s public access news station broadcasts and playing Ellie May in Showboat and the Cat in the Hat in Seussical.
“I thought I was going to be an actor,” she said.
After a year at the University of Mississippi as a musical theater major, she transferred to UT for a degree in interior design (now interior architecture), where she was inspired by faculty members like Mary Beth Robinson.
“They gave us the freedom to show our personalities in our work,” she said. “The roots of what we would be growing into came because they allowed us to run with an idea.”
After graduation Wray moved to LA and did comedy improv with Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade, and an all-woman sketch comedy group.
“I did comedy for six years, which brought me into the production side. Through production design jobs and art direction jobs, I saw all the different opportunities you could have as an artist. Side gigs in art and design started trickling back into my life, starting with jobs as small as the chalk lettering on restaurant blackboards that was very in around that time.
“Ultimately, art was pulling me more than acting was. I cut acting cold turkey and I opened my own design company. I was doing custom artwork design for brands, photo shoot backgrounds, digital illustrations. I started getting requests from all different types of people and brands, and it snowballed into designing murals.
“I learned through interior design how to present to clients,” said Wray, “that it’s OK that things change. From comedy improv and performance, I gained confidence and learned to trust in myself and be articulate in how I verbalize ideas and enjoy being with people and clients, even when you’re getting rejected. If you believe in an idea or concept, you can carry it out. I knew what kind of art I wanted to create. What I love is coming up with an idea and seeing it through to completion, generating ideas and creating concepts along the way.”
For the Cal Johnson Recreation Center, Wray immersed herself in diverse designs.
“I looked at African textile designs and quilt designs,” she said, “and put those same themes into the patterns and shapes, textures, with a modern spin on it—making it clean, sharp, and vibrant—as a nod to the future.”
Wray shared three or four rounds of designs, adjustments, and edits and got input from Parker, Kesler, and others involved the project.
Said Parker, “I was super happy with how the court turned out, and I am just grateful to have the opportunity to be able to give back the Knoxville community that gave so much to me. Rocky Top is my second home. And, of course, to have the opportunity to honor Pat in the process is a privilege.”
They did the painting in three weeks in September.
“It was in the middle of the pandemic,” said Wray. “Fortunately, we were outside, masked and social distanced, and safe.”
Wray flew in for the installation, and with the help of Project Blackboard, a nonprofit that paints artwork on basketball courts, they outlined and drew out the shapes. Over the next few days, some 40 to 75 local artists and volunteers put on three coats of specialized paint for outdoor courts.
“So many people’s vision came through in so many different ways,” said Wray. “It truly was an act of a community coming together. I learned so much through this project, and I am so grateful to have been a part of it.”
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