‘Providing them with art’
Woodlawn Elementary art teacher paints murals for Dry Stack Coffee shop

Published 5:15 pm Monday, September 27, 2021

Under the warm light inside Dry Stack Coffee shop on Main Street after its operating hours, Hillary Zimmerman was hard at work painting a modernized barn quilt design on one of the empty walls. She painted a triangle shape with a blue acrylic paint she had mixed herself, to get the shade just right.

Her other mural in the shop that she painted before the shop opened on Sept. 1 is of a coffee plant, with lots of berries, done toward the back of the shop in black and white. The barn quilt mural, by contrast, is bursting with colors — blues, peach, and orange.

Zimmerman not only has painted two murals in the shop —  she’s also the art teacher at Woodlawn Elementary School.

She got involved with painting murals for Dry Stack because she’s neighbors with Aaron Ranson, the owner of Dry Stack, and his wife Leigh Ranson. At a neighborhood picnic held every year, Leigh suggested Zimmerman do the art for the shop, and she agreed.

Zimmerman got started on some sketches. Leigh said Aaron had something on his inspiration list — he had seen something similar in another coffee shop — a painting of a coffee plant. For another mural, Leigh said she wanted to fill another empty wall and that a new design should be more colorful. Zimmerman suggested a modernized barn quilt design.

Zimmerman said Dry Stack is named after dry stack fences around Kentucky, and something else commonly seen in Kentucky are barn quilts, so she thought it would create a nice sense of unity, and she wanted to create a modern design because she said the shop has a modern feeling. Aaron and Leigh’s one requirement was to have the dark teal color of some of the walls in the shop incorporated into the design, so Zimmerman came up with a color palette around that shade and focused on the Ransons’ emphasis on the design being colorful.

“So that was part of my reason for the design I came up with too, because I feel like I wanted to have something that was bursting out, radiating,” Zimmerman said.

In class, Zimmerman teaches her fourth grade students about barn quilts and their history. One thing she likes to point out is they didn’t start in Kentucky or the Southeast — they began with colonial Americans, and a lot of the colors they used were tied to superstition. Symbols used can also be universal, like the subtle star symbol Zimmerman incorporated into her own design, which can be seen across many cultures. Zimmerman wanted to also embody a sense of community through the use of the symbol. She came up with a few color palettes, and the Ransons chose their favorite. She mixed the colors herself to give them a more personal touch — it was important to her that the colors were hers.

Zimmerman said she doesn’t think she’s ever painted a mural before, but she’s created backdrops for Cumberland County Playhouse in Tennessee, where she used to live, and she’s created backdrops and large pieces for plays she’s written, directed and produced for the Woodlawn drama club.

“Working on a big scale is a challenge, but I didn’t feel like it was out of my comfort zone at all,” she said.

Before she moved to Kentucky, Zimmerman got a bachelor’s degree in advertising and had minors in art and English. She worked in advertising for a little while but didn’t find it as fulfilling as she liked — she wanted to expand her horizons. After moving to Kentucky, she and her husband talked about her going back to school to get a master’s degree in art education, which she did at the University of Kentucky. She said art is a protected subject in elementary schools in Kentucky, something she didn’t see as much in Tennessee.

When it comes to working with Dry Stack, Zimmerman said she loves that Aaron selects and roasts beans himself, something he used to do out of his house. She said she could smell it, since she is his neighbor.

“I love that the process is all here in Danville,” she said.

It’s also great he believed in something he was doing so much that he made it happen and started a coffee shop, during a pandemic no less, she said.

She’d make art for anyone willing to pay, “But making art for someone who really believes in what they’re doing and believes in it, and their goals are pure goals, then it makes me want to really make sure I’m providing them with art that is everything that they want it to be.”

Zimmerman also believes it’s important for art teachers to create art on a professional level if they can, since they’re the experts on art in their school buildings.

“I think it’s also important for our students to see that too, because I feel like it’s really easy for students to realize that society values athletics, but when they see that society values the arts — and I have lots of students who are really artsy, and they want to do something in the arts too — then I feel like I need to be out here, showing them society does value the arts, and this is just one way.”

She wants students to see that a business was willing to pay her to create murals because they wanted to make sure they got original, locally-created art, personalized how they wanted.

“They could have gotten something that they saw and thought looked pretty and they could have gotten that from so many different places, but instead they were like, ‘Let’s get an artist. Let’s make sure that our message that we want is somehow portrayed in art.”