Though Kristy Oakley is tiny, she sure paints big.
Her broad strokes are enormous, but she manages to get in exquisite detail. Oakley is a local muralist, and her signature morphed-up paintings grace not only Donelson proper’s huge brick façades, but also local and not-so-local homes’ interiors – think children’s rooms. Visit east Nashville, and you will see her mega mural and even Goodlettsville features her signature “city name” mural.
The Donelson native motorcycle-riding lady has painted since she was old enough to hold a paintbrush.
“When I was 5 and in kindergarten, my parents put an addition onto our house and gave me the leftover wallboard,” she said.
Those ragged white pieces of board were the young artist’s canvas.
“I used a cheap little children’s paint set and was in love,” Oakley said.
At 49, Oakley has parlayed that latent talent into a major full-time career as a muralist and house painter on walls and murals inside.
“You got to make money in between the fun stuff,” she said of interim interior house painting.
Oakley loved taking art electives in high school in her small town and planned to major in art in college.
“It was a small college in 1989, and that’s when personal computers hit the big time, and people could do art on them and didn’t need real artists,” said Kristy.
And, she didn’t see eye-to-eye with her college art teacher. So she quit.
“Dumbest thing I ever did,” she said.
She went to cosmetology school and “did hair” for years.
But one day, someone at her church, Donelson Church of Christ, asked her to paint a mural in the children’s wing – a full hallway wall.
“I painted Noah’s Ark, and it was probably pretty terrible,” she said with a laugh.
This was 24 years ago. But, she enjoyed it, and the church thought it was fabulous. Oakley needed a portfolio if she wanted to launch a muralist career, so while she “did hair,” she asked her clients and friends if she could paint a mural in their homes for free.
“Just to get a cheap portfolio together,” she said.
Of course they took her up on it. At that time, Winnie the Pooh and enchanted gardens strewn across children’s walls were all the rage. People loved her work, and her portfolio grew to an admirable size.
Her breakthrough mural was when the Donelson YMCA commissioned her to paint a huge mural in their swimming pool area.
“It was an ‘Under the Ocean’ theme,” she remembered. “It was a big deal.”
And, it was big, the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool.
“I think it still might be there,” she said.
And so a career was born, and it’s been a fun journey. She has two murals in Donelson proper. They are adjacent to Party Fowl. Her mom, who is retired, is her “helper.”
“We laugh and say for her, it’s paint by number,” said Oakley. “She fills in the big places, and I just love getting her out and being with her.”
Oakley’s signature Donelson mural is a panoramic, bird’s eye view of the city she painted in 2014. It has buildings, streets and signature architecture. She donated the epic mural to the city and spent about four weeks in June in the blazing sun working on it.
They printed copies of the mural and sold them so she could make a little change in the deal.
How did she know what buildings to depict, next to another and another, roads and other landmarks?
“I’ve lived in Donelson my whole life,” she said. “I didn’t have to take pictures or anything. I just know where everything is.”
The mural takes up an entire wall at Treasure Consignments on Old Lebanon Road.
Another mural not far away is what she refers to as a signature salute welcome mural that has the city’s name in huge letters, with the inside of the letters filled with cityscapes.
She’s known for these pieces and her favorite is an east Nashville mural on an exterior wall in the Gulch. She’s currently planning one for the city of Goodlettsville.
Oakley eventually returned to college and earned a degree in interior design, so she loves to also paint houses and sometimes do some fancy painting on the job.
“I was never really formally trained to be an artist,” she said. “I really think people get the talent sort of naturally.”
Her favorite mural with the words East Nashville has something strange about it. To research these murals, Oakley said she loves that Google is her best friend.
“I research east Nashville, and in one of the letters I have a local flower shop I saw on my Google search,” she said.
Turns out Google got it wrong.
“People came up to me and said, ‘That flower shop is not in East Nashville’,” said an unabashed Oakley. “It’s now a fun thing with people and part of the charm.”
In between painting ginormous murals full time and riding her beloved motorcycle, Oakley is charting a path to achieve an art license deal. In layman’s terms, she can license her art to be printed on things like mugs, tea towels and more.
“I can paint one thing and have it produced a million times in the privacy of my own studio,” she said.
While she works toward that goal, there’s no telling where Oakley might be found up on scaffolding painting a mural in and around here and there.