Lee Estes – Silo Mural Brings Well-Deserved Celebrity Status
In today’s world, with our steady stream of negative news, self-promotion, and verbal and physical attacks, it is heartening to meet a man like Lee Estes. Humble and unassuming, he is an example of good deeds rewarded. As he stands in his driveway and shakes his head and smiles, it is clear he’s still not used to seeing his 15-story likeness a few blocks away.
The Nations is fast becoming a neighborhood of hip bars and restaurants, young families, and trendy shops. Old mills and factories are converted into apartments and office spaces. Multiple homes turn up on, what used to be, one residential lot. Folks knock on the door of the home he’s lived in since the 1950s. “They make good offers, but I am not ready to sell just yet,” says the 91-year-old. “Most of the old-timers have moved away. Those of us still here need to learn to live with the progress and love it,” continues Mr. Estes, with his characteristic glass-half-full attitude.
Australian Guido van Helten was commissioned to paint an abandoned grain silo in this reviving west Nashville community. A former graffiti artist, van Helten travels the globe painting photographic-like murals on buildings, silos, and shipping containers. The artist, searching for a local resident who represented the area’s spirit, discovered Mr. Estes through the staff at St. Luke’s Community House.
According to Mr. Estes, “Guido came to my house and took a few pictures of me. Next thing I knew, he was up in the air, painting me on the silo, my wrinkles and all!” He explains it was amazing to watch van Helten study photos on his phone with one hand and guide a paintbrush with the other.
Situated within sight of the silo, St. Luke’s serves low income families and seniors in this changing neighborhood. Mr. Estes knows everyone by name and remembers the staff who worked there when he played basketball after school. As he grew older, he looked forward to the dances and parties St. Luke’s hosted. He now enjoys exercise classes, shopping excursions, and restaurant outings through the senior program. He walks (or drives!) to St. Luke’s on Thursdays to volunteer, setting up the arts and crafts activities and assisting others (some much younger than he is) with their projects.
As we talk, Mr. Estes shares a scrapbook filled with memories from the day the mural was unveiled. He points out photos of family, friends, and neighbors and has no trouble recalling first and last names. Marveling at the honor bestowed upon him, he is thankful for his good life and considers every day a blessing. “This makes an old man feel good,” he remarks with that constant twinkle in his eye. “With age, everything keeps getting better and better,” he adds.
“I am very thankful for my life and all its blessings. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”
He reminisces about growing up on a farm, a few blocks from the silo. Mr. Estes remembers his family having what they needed, but money was scarce. “You learn to appreciate and be thankful for what you have,” he says. The family had no indoor plumbing, and kids gathered at one home in the neighborhood to watch the first television set.
In his quiet way, he tells me his dad was a good man and a hard worker. According to Mr. Estes, “He taught us to follow the Golden Rule—always treat others the way you want them to treat you. Do your best, do what is right, and treat people kindly.” Mr. Estes says he has always tried to “copy my dad” and hopes he’s passed the same message on to his son, daughter, and grandchildren.
“I hope the people who had anything to do with this mural know how pleased and honored and appreciative I am.”
After Mr. Estes returned from Japan and World War II, he moved into his current home in the Nations. His days begin at 4 am—a leftover habit from his 43 years in the purchasing department of a Nashville-based corporation. He strolls over to the neighborhood market to drink coffee, read the newspapers, work the crossword puzzles, and “shoot the breeze.” Tending his vegetable and postcard-worthy flower garden is satisfying work for him—and possibly contributes to him looking years younger than he is. “Not one to miss a meal,” he enjoys some light cooking. With no computer or cell phone, he reads all sorts of books.
Mr. Estes stresses these are his “happiest days.” Although he’s blessed with a great family and a wonderful life, the mural is “the icing on his cake.” As I joke about his celebrity status, he shakes his head. “I don’t want to be famous. I just want to be remembered as a person who tried to be the best I could be for my community and my family.”