Empty block walls, to most of us, aren’t worthy of a second look. They create a building space.

But Jamie Jensen sees them differently, especially if allowed to bring his gallons of paint and brushes. The artist has been seen about town, turning older buildings into canvases for art.

His current project is at Foothills Crossing Apartments near Home Depot in Maryville. Owner Marilyn Johnson hired Jensen at first to do some interior painting and stucco work. She said she soon realized his talents went much further. That’s when she asked him to paint a few murals on the exterior walls there.

So far, he’s done a waterfall in the courtyard and another landscape scene featuring a meadow with tall trees, flowers and a water fountain gazed at through three decorative archways, at the apartments’ entrance. Down the length of the backside, he’s painted the entire block space to look as if it’s individual bricks. And the front as well.

Residents have taken notice. The courtyard area is a place where they can gather. Jensen said the serene waterfall he’s been painting there has made a nice centerpiece for conversation. He first thought about a beach scene but he and Johnson settled on the waterfall.

Johnson has owned the apartments for about three years. She has done extensive work and does the landscaping herself. She said what Jensen has done is more than a picture on a wall.

“This is a community gift,” she said.

He’s had some practice at his craft.

Jensen said he moved to Blount County when he was 5 years old, from Oregon. In school, art classes were his favorite. He said after high school, he got hired by a local billboard company to paint some of the smaller billboards in town.

After getting his feet wet there, Jensen said he was hired by the billboard giant, Lamar Advertising, and spent his days painting huge vinyl canvases to be hoisted above the interstates. That’s where he said he learned about color.

But, the days of hand-painting signs is long gone. Jensen said technology put him out of a job; his love of painting has remained.

He no longer makes his living at it but does have a studio where he creates large paintings on canvas. There’s nothing small about the process.

“My canvas work is pretty big,” he said. “When it comes to small things, I don’t shine there.”

Big spaces and broad brush strokes are the preferred method, he said. He spent a few weeks on the murals at Foothills Crossing and also completed some work at England Wood Stove Store on West Broadway in Maryville. That was months ago.

Weather is about the only thing that causes any delays, this artist said.

This type of painting is best looked at from a distance, Jensen said. “I paint them to look more like a billboard,” he explained. “It would take a lot of hours to do more detailed work.”

But after 30 years, he’s got it down to a science. The right exterior paints, the right colors and time. His subjects are more architectural than warm and fuzzy.

“I don’t like just painting anything on a wall,” he said. “The architectural stuff makes it look more believable.”

Johnson said Jensen’s been working for her for a little over a year. She said she’s seen the positive effect his work has had on people just passing by. One woman got her three kids out to pose in front of the archway murals. One girl riding her bike stomped on her brakes and asked her mom to take a photo.

“It’s a masterpiece,” she told her mom.

There is a piece of Jensen’s artwork in the Old City. He also does technical drawings.

There are a few other murals in town, like the one on the side of a bike shop on Broadway in Maryville, which was painted by a muralist from Florida. Jensen said there are more artists in Knoxville who do this type of work. Lots of downtowns are seeing the benefits of murals to spruce things up, he said.

That is fine with him. He is happy when complete strangers stop, roll down the car window and show a nod of appreciation or inquire about his art. He’s not planning on stopping anytime soon.

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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