Alumni, Faculty and Students Combine Forces in New Hotel Mural Project

Assistants Britt Guynes and Bella Guynes chisel images into the sgraffito mural.

Good things come when UA alumni, faculty and students work together to create something new in Tuscaloosa.

UA alumna Andrea Gillespie of Nashville was hired by Cohen Investments to be the principal interior designer of a new hotel in Tuscaloosa, Homewood Suites by Hilton. Gillespie, who is owner and principal of AK Designs LLC and has designed hotel interiors for two decades, was excited about creating something in Tuscaloosa, and she wanted it to be special. Her design for Homewood Suites uses familiar UA campus and sports motifs in the guest rooms, but with a distinctive twist. For some of the guest rooms, for example, she reproduced and framed antique Alabama sporting event tickets. She also had a unique idea for the hotel lobby: a giant sgraffito mural of a well-known UA landmark, Denny Chimes, so Gillespie enlisted faculty, students and staff from the UA department of art and art history to create the specialized mural she envisioned.

Detail of the sgraffito carving in the mural.

Gillespie had seen murals in other cities created with this now-unusual technique that dates back to classical Greece and Rome, but she was having a difficult time finding an artist who could do this kind of skilled work. After a few tries, she cold-called Jason Guynes, chair of the UA department of art and art history, to ask for suggestions for someone who knew the sgraffito technique or would be willing to try it out – not realizing Guynes has twenty years’ experience in mural painting. Guynes, who has completed public and private mural commissions throughout the United States, decided to bid on the project himself. Although he hadn’t worked in sgraffito on this scale before, he was very interested in the idea. He prepared a digital representation of the mural and a sample mock-up to scale in order to give the designer and the owners an idea of what he would do – and they liked it.

The finished mural in the lobby of Homewood Suites by Hilton.

The ancient technique of sgraffito was very popular for murals and palace façades in Renaissance Italy, but it’s less common on a large scale today. To create a sgraffito work, the artist applies layers of plaster tinted in contrasting colors to a moistened surface and then scratches or chisels the surface to reveal parts of the underlying layers. Guynes and his team, including sculpture professor Craig Wedderspoon, alumni Jonathan Lanier (BFA 2019) and Ringo Lisko (BFA 2020), and current and incoming art majors Britt Guynes and Bella Guynes, added two layers of plaster – white and gray – to the red brick surface of the lobby wall. Then the top white layer of plaster was carved or removed by chiseling to reveal the gray or the brick beneath and to create the image.

The lobby of Homewood Suites by Hilton now displays a towering image of Denny Chimes across the 21-feet-high-by-36-feet-wide wall, with a dramatic pattern of houndstooth and sweeping clouds displayed behind the UA landmark, all carved by hand in sgraffito. The mural, a first for Gillespie and for Guynes as well as for Tuscaloosa, is more than just a pretty picture. The project brought alumni, faculty and students together who made new friends and connections and learned new skills. Stuart Cohen, a partner in Cohen Investments, the lead developer and majority owner of Homewood Suites, and also an Alabama alumnus, noted that it was great having an Alabama alum design this hotel. “It was a perfect fit for the project.” Gillespie said, “We have done art concepts and installations, but nothing like this or to this scale. This was special for both Stuart and me, given our connections to the University as alumni.”

Homewood Suites by Hilton is open now and will hold its grand opening on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. More information is available from the hotel.

All images courtesy of Jason Guynes.

For more information about The University of Alabama’s programs in art history and studio art, visit our Degree Programs page.