Waverly Mural by Keith Tolen

An interview with retired art educator and community muralist, Keith Tolen

by Ryan Finley / Garnet & Black


Mural 4: Waverly Mural by Keith Tolen (@redbowtie1)

On a low wall in front of the office of the Free Times on Gervais Street, you will find Keith Tolen’s mural commemorating the Waverly neighborhood. Like Umoja, Tolen is committed to advocating for the Black community, specifically by depicting their unity, faith, and energy through change. Tolen was commissioned by One Columbia to work on the mural, and “worked with members of the Waverly community…to share the broadest possible story within the space.” Tolen said that “the strong faith of the residents in the community was one of the key ingredients” for the piece.

The mural, though less massive than other works featured here, is incredibly striking. Tolen said that he wanted to “look for symbols that would bring the community to life.” He decided on water as the tool and the wave as the symbol, something Tolen was fond of because “the wave was also a shortened version of the name for the community.” His remarks about the creation of the mural are fascinating:

“In the design, the wave of water starts on the left side of the wall and flows across the    entire image. Just like water, as it moves, it can be a force for creation, and we see the    large faces emerge and assist the flow of the water. The wave in the design also attempts    to symbolize the energy or life-blood of the community. At the end of the design, we    find in the flow of the water the essence of the Waverly community and the main part that has kept this community together over the many years.”

Tolen has always been incredibly fond of the visual arts, drawing and painting as a child with his family. He remembers having to create his own fun with his siblings as a child, spending “a lot of time outside where we were resourceful in building our own sources of entertainment from almost any object that we could lay our hands on.” He remembers making his first homemade paintings using mud, berries, and other natural materials. He later studied art at SC State and went on to teach art at Camden Middle School for 30 years before retiring.

When asked about his creative process, Tolen said that he works to “create art constantly” and that he “maintain[s] a collection of sketchbooks used to practice techniques or test ideas.” He emphasizes the importance of communication, especially when working on a collaborative piece, saying the “first step, in most cases, will start with dialogue. During the exchange of ideas, some common themes or images will start to be repeated, making it possible to come to a unified visual plan.”

In terms of subject matter, Tolen relates that he likes to paint from nature saying that “birds are [his] favorite subjects.” He is currently exploring this passion through a series of characters that he refers to as “da birds,” cartoon birds that get involved in various situations, a project that has remained close to him for the past two years. He also is interested in creating “art that has a social relevance, especially when it comes to bring light on subjects that are life-changing but yet get little attention”.

When asked about his aspirations, Tolen said that he “would love to see the role of the arts evolve into a more frontline role” and that he feels “more attention should be paid to fostering creativity.” He wishes to give more recognition and respect to modern artists, and to pay tribute to the historical achievement of local artists that have passed away. But, central to Tolen is his love of creation. “I will continue to draw and paint. This is what I do and a major part of who I am.”

Tolen’s art is about recognition, respect, and unity for both past and future generations. “I would like to see creativity encouraged because I feel it has the power to unify individuals under a common banner.”