"Everywhere You Look, UT" mural campaign

UT President Randy Boyd (left) stands with the Stone Family in front of a completed mural on their property in Bristol, Tennessee.

The “Everywhere You Look, UT” campaign is on a path to rival “See Rock City” for the most roadside murals in the state of Tennessee. The UT system-wide marketing project plans to have a mural, complete with the famous orange logo, in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties by the year 2030.

Started in 2018, “Everywhere You Look, UT” is a campaign that seeks to raise awareness of the university’s impact across the state. The narrative-driven project partners with families and communities across the state to display a mural on their property and to tell their stories of how the university has impacted them. 

The campaign has already placed murals in six counties including Knox and Shelby, and is looking to add six more this fall in Sumner, Meigs, Roane, Grainger, Houston and Trousdale counties.

Ellie Amador, who serves as Director of Marketing for the UT system, says that before the campaign began, 1200 people from across Tennessee were surveyed about their perceptions of UT’s influence in the state. 

This winter, to mark the three year anniversary of the campaign’s launch, UT will run surveys to see if they have raised more awareness of the work the university is doing.

“The campaign itself is designed to make sure that our primary audience of Tennesseans understand that anywhere they look, everywhere they look across the state of Tennessee, they will find UT’s presence and UT’s impact,” Amador said. 

“Maybe it is an alumnus or an alumna who is their child’s teacher or their doctor or their accountant or their extension agent that is consulting on their family farm.”

Amador says that the campaign initially used billboards, social media and digital ads to promote its message, but has since focused on the murals which are placed along busy roadways and waterways in each corner of the state, and which connect communities to the UT system more effectively.

Already the campaign has seen murals bring new life to communities, where passersby stop to take photos and hear the stories of the families behind them.

“We found that the murals and the stories … that’s what a community really embraces,” Amador said. “In partnering with these property owners, we’re not only telling the story of UT’s impact in that community, but we’re also telling that owner’s story of impact.”

The second mural, painted on a large grain bin in Sharon, Tennessee, is emblematic of the singular nature of the statewide campaign. 

The mural lies on the property of Keith Fowler and his wife Linda Robinson Fowler, both graduates of UT Martin who run Robinson and Belew, Inc., the largest business in the community. The Robinson family boasts three generations of UT Martin graduates, and were proud to have the “Everywhere You Look, UT” mural painted on one of their grain bins, where it will be visible to nearly 1.9 million people each year.

Amador says that making connections between UT and members of communities in every county is the most rewarding part of her work on the campaign. By the number of people applying to have a mural on their property, it seems that there is enthusiasm for the campaign on both sides.

“I’ve got so many locations that have been submitted as possibilities that it’s difficult to figure out how to schedule them all,” Amador said. “There’s so much interest, there’s so much pride in the University of Tennessee across the state. And people are really embracing the campaign with so much energy.”

When an application is submitted, Amador and her team use tools such as Google Earth and data from the Tennessee Department of Transportation to assess how visible and trafficked the location is. They also look to see how passionate the property owner is about UT. 

Once a location is cleared, it is up to Troy Freeman, a Springfield, Illinois-based mural artist and owner of FreeSky Studios, to bring the mural to life, whether on the side of an old barn, as in Bristol, or a water tower, as in Knoxville.

In his travels from county to county, Freeman sees more of Tennessee than many Tennesseeans do. One thing that has surprised him in his work is the diversity of the state, even between rural communities.

“Every location has been different,” Freeman said. “I didn’t realize how wide of a state Tennessee was until we went from Memphis to Bristol, and you’re like, holy cow, there’s a lot of land in here.”

The process of painting the large “Everywhere You Look, UT” murals is slightly different than some of Freeman’s past projects, since the murals use the same font and colors across counties, but it still requires a good deal of problem-solving.

“One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is access to the wall,” Freeman said. “You may have a straight building, but if you’ve got a stream running by or a culvert or something, you’ve got to figure out, ‘how am I going to get over there to paint the wall?’ And I mean there’s ways around everything, so I’m always up for a challenge.”

In order to answer questions over the phone, Freeman had to pull himself away from a family in Portland who were enthusiastically running him through their family history as he arrived to paint the campaign’s newest mural on a grain bin along State Route 52 in Sumner County. To him, hearing these stories is the best part of his work.

“It’s nice that I have the ability to do what I do, but I’ve really enjoyed meeting the people,” Freeman said. “Everyone takes so much pride in their stories, and I love it.”

Ellie Amador, also on the call, was quick to correct him on this point.

“His favorite part, he didn’t mention this, his favorite part of each location is finding the best place to eat,” Amador said. “Troy loves barbeque.”

The campaign encourages students and community members who want to apply for a mural location or who want to hear more stories about the murals and the communities they touch to visit its website.

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