In a time when we’ve been cut off from one another like never before, one Nashville couple turned a fence intended to separate into a canvas from which to spread joy.

Tom and Nola Petty have been privately putting up holiday chalk drawings and messages on the black fence surrounding their home along the Stones River Greenway for years, but when COVID-19 hit last March, their approach changed in a way you could chalk up to filling a need.

Where the Pettys live, the nearly 10-mile greenway trail is a boardwalk that bends around their backyard.

“It’s a peaceful place,” Tom Petty said. “It’s got a lot of wildflowers that we’ve planted and we’ve landscaped it nicely. This time of year we’re usually in the backyard playing our music and people come dancing along and talk to us.”

When they first moved into the in-development subdivision in 2000, the Pettys weren’t told about the path that would go through their property, and so they compromised with planners to build the workaround.

“We’ve come to coexist,” Tom Petty said with a laugh.

While building a fence to offer a degree of privacy, the couple couldn’t find the color stain they were looking for during a store closeout sale. That’s why the pair followed the whimsical whim of Nola Petty. In doing so, they settled on black.

“My wife is somewhat on the edge,” Tom Petty said with another good-natured laugh. “She’ll do some really crazy things. Some people will find them crazy, but I’ve learned to appreciate it.”

And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, throwing a wrench into everyone’s plans, the Pettys again came up with an unconventional idea.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, they focused their chalk art outward, moving it down the bank and out toward the boardwalk.

It all started with a little family of mask-wearing stick figures, drawn up as a non-political message of caring and health for pedestrians to see.

“Subconsciously, I think it got to the point where we were spending a lot of time at home. We’re a little older than most people so we didn’t want to go out and take chances,” Tom Petty said. “We were just trying to say something to them and greet them in some way, and that’s sort of what it evolved into trying to stay positive and be nice about things.”

Before long, the fence became a year-round endeavor that the couple enjoyed changing with the seasons. Frequently, the fence bore messages of positivity, goofy doodles and even jokes to lift spirits.

“It was one of those things, there’s so many people on the greenway coming and going, it just seemed like something that could make people smile,” Nola Petty said.

During Valentine’s Day, the fence read “Love Everybody, no matter who you voted for.”

St. Patrick’s Day featured a delightfully corny “dad joke” about Paddy O’Furniture.

Then there was Easter when, after the flooding, a doodle of a rabbit originally accompanied by the words “Hoppin Down the Greenway trail” shifted to “Swimming down the Greenway Trail.”

“People actually appreciate that extra smile. They understand that we’re doing it to be uplifting,” Nola Petty said. “We’re just doing it to get people to know there’s something to smile about every day. If you’re on the greenway, all you got to do is look over at the fence. There’s something going on.”

Tom Petty has enjoyed the response, too.

“It makes people stop and take a picture and turn and talk to us,” he said. “I guess there’s some pride involved. We’re proud of the fact that we’re able to stir people up a little bit and make them feel good about walking down the greenway. It just encourages a little bit more contact, a little more communication. That’s what I like about it.”

While Tom Petty says the trail is currently cut off by still-too-high water, warm, dry weather continues to wring out the city and their visitors will soon return.

And despite the heavy rain, the stick figures, much like the Nashvillians they were drawn to represent, will be waiting for them when they do, having proved their resilience.

“When we have a big rainstorm, sections of it will get washed away and we’ll have to go down and fix it,” Tom Petty said. “The little stick people tend to be at an angle the rains don’t seem to get to. We’ll have to go down and touch them up, but we never have to replace them completely.”

Still, there’s one touch-up in particular the Pettys can’t wait to make.

“We’re waiting for the day when we take off the masks,” Nola Petty said. “And we can put up a big ‘Hooray! We made it!’ “

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