Enriching lives through art and craft

Artist Ashton Ludden brings Appalachian wildlife into focus in a new mural at Arrowmont

In late 2020, Arrowmont instructor and friend, Ashton Ludden, spent a series of days creating a new mural on Arrowmont’s campus. She shares her experiences and insights into the process and imagery in this blog article. Click the image or go to https://youtu.be/u-e5V5DGvVQ to view the video timelapse of the mural creation and read more below:

Painting the Arrowmont Lounge Mural

By Ashton Ludden

I have had the privilege to teach at Arrowmont in several ways since 2014: in their community classes, ArtReach, holiday workshops, and national workshops. More recently, I have been the coordinator for the 2D artists at Pentaculum, an invitational artist residency that happens both in winter and spring. Nick Deford, Arrowmont Program Director, and I had discussed the idea of me doing a mural on campus in the past, but the timing was never right.

Then Covid hit…and I suddenly had time and motivation to revisit the idea. When an anonymous donor awarded $1,000,000 to instructors at Arrowmont and other craft schools so that we’d be compensated for the workshops that couldn’t run in 2020, I was fortunate and felt I didn’t need the money as much as Arrowmont.  As an essential worker, my income was not impacted by Covid-19 in the way that many other people experienced in 2020. So I offered to donate back the money – in labor of the mural – to Arrowmont. Nick and I decided to complete the mural in the fall while weather was nice and campus was quiet as Arrowmont was utilizing that time for campus improvements.

The nature of all my work speaks to our relationship to wildlife. So, for this mural, I wanted to feature the incredible diversity of the flora and fauna of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, particularly because Arrowmont sits just one-mile from the park entrance!


As I began researching, I quickly was overwhelmed with the options of what plants and animals to include, because GSMNP is the most biodiverse park in the national park system. Instead, I narrowed it down to nocturnal and cave wildlife. I chose this particularly due to the nature of the the dark, concrete tunnel, which echoed the structure of a cold, dark cave. And because of The Lounge itself, typically being the location on campus where the nocturnal participants can congregate late into the night, well after the studios and bars are closed. As for the visual inspiration, I looked to old WPA (Works Progress Administration) National Park posters for color palettes, as well as their simplicity in design with flat colors, to help encourage me to NOT get to too detailed in a mural…but we all know how that worked out…
I have been primarily in contact with Rebecca Nichols, an entomologist, (Bill Griffith, former Arrowmont assistant director and current outreach and partnership liaison, connected me to her), and also Jesse Webster, a Forester, and I have connected with him in the past asking him questions about invasive species at the park, by just ignorantly showing up at the research center asking questions (they aren’t really open the public). They are both on the Research Management and Science staff for the park. I contacted them to ask questions about nocturnal and cave life in the Smokies and what specific species to include or not include. I met with them once at the Twin Creeks Science and Research Center and since have emailed ideas back and forth, primarily with Ms. Nichols.
I am new to murals. I’ve done a few at a couple at Trader Joe’s, but because this was my first I-get-to-do-whatever-I-want mural, I approached it more like a huge drawing/painting. I had a very basic sketch and drew the main components of the mural directly on the wall with chalk and then started painting from that. This method was exciting because I didn’t know exactly what it would look like in the end. It was a living, breathing mural. And as I was working on campus for days at a time, I would discover more and more plants and animals to include, both while I was on campus and trail running in the park (coincidentally on trails right near Twin Creeks). So it was neat to be directly inspired by the environment around me at the time I was painting.

Unlike most murals, I had the luxury of time, which was very pleasant because it felt like working in my studio at my own pace.


I tried to calculate how many hours I spent on it, and I came to about 110-120 hours. I learned a lot through this experience. I would approach the process differently if being a typical paid job and complete a finalized drawing up front, because a lot of my hours “painting” went to figuring out where things should go and what to include (rather than planning ahead). But I enjoyed having the opportunity to paint a bit more leisurely. I also learned I don’t need NEARLY as much paint as I thought. I also would consider artificial/natural/multiple light sources and how they affect the look of the paint finish, particularly on the heavy textured cinder blocks. I would have maybe tried a matte finish instead of satin.

The most joy I had was the experience of wildlife while I painted, both in the GSMNP and on campus. While creating this mural, I saw multiple bears (one in a tree while trail running), a super cute, fat groundhog (aka whistle pig) that hangs around on campus, many wild turkeys, plus so many tiny creatures from moths to slugs hanging out with me in the tunnel as I painted.

Being an extrovert, this solo painting on an empty campus was definitely a mental challenge. I was in the tunnel completely alone 95% of the time. So maybe seeing so much life, and in turn, creating that life in a once grey empty space was filling some social void for me. But I really had a wonderful, pleasant time doing it. I learned so much and am happy it will exist at one of my favorite places in the world, Arrowmont!
Due to the evolutionary nature of my approach to the mural, I kept thinking of more plants and animals to include as I painted. But I realized I would probably be there painting until 2021 if I did all of them. So instead, I decided I would continue to add several small creatures to it every couple months. Most added will be plants, fungi, and smaller species such as insects, amphibians, and reptiles. Currently, there are over 22 species of plants and animals in the mural. Below is the list of what is included. I would like to post this list either on Arrowmont’s website and/or mine so viewers can easily find the list online, and enjoy seeking them out in the mural, similar to a “I Spy” or “Where’s Waldo?”
Species include:
  • Black bear (Ursus americanus)
  • Saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus)
  • Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis)
  • Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
  • Racoon (Procyon lotor)
  • Woodland jumping mouse (Napaeozapus insignis)
  • Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)
  • Hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)
  • juvenile Eastern red-spotted salamander (Notophthalmus viridescens)
  • Black-chinned salamander (Pseudotriton ruber)
  • Cave salamander (Eurycea lucifuga)
  • Regal moth (Citheronia regalis)
  • Lunar moth (Actias luna)
  • Geometer moth (Geometridae)
  • Water snake (Nerodia sipedon)
  • Synchronized fireflies (Photinus carolinus)
  • Blue Ghost fireflies (Phausis reticulata)
  • Ghost Pipes (Monotropa uniflora)
  • Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum)
  • Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis)
  • White Wood Aster ( Eurybia divaricata )
  • Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
  • Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)
  • Orange mycena (Mycena leaiana)
  • Oligoporus persicinus (couldn’t find a common name)

Ashton LuddenAshton Ludden is a printmaker, sign artist, and educator. She received her MFA in printmaking at the University of Tennessee in 2013 and her BFA in Engraving Arts & Printmaking at Emporia State University in 2009. Her animal-focused work has been shown nationally and internationally. Ashton Ludden is co-owner and founder of community artists space Relay Ridge in Knoxville and the lead sign artist for her local Trader Joe’s.

ART WORKSTENNESSEE ARTS COMMISIONTENNESSEE FOR THE ARTSTennessee Specialty License PlatesEAST TENNESSEE FOUNDATIONWindgate Foundation Arrowmont is being supported, in whole or in part, by federal award number SLFRP5534 awarded to the State of Tennessee by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

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