When hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Connie Wilkerson-Arp was in 10th grade.
She lived no more than 45 minutes from ground zero at the time.
And her father was one of the first responders.
Wilkerson-Arp, the daughter of that now-retired police officer and the wife of a soldier in the United States Army, is the artist behind a patriotic mural that graces the side of a business in Sneads Ferry.
The work combines those personal relationships and her fascination with military history, she said, something that compelled her to paint the mural.
Nestled in the Four Corners of Sneads Ferry and behind a sea of wildflowers is the visual representation of the evolution of the American service member, from the Revolutionary War to the modern service member, the American flag, and the Preamble to the United States constitution combined.
“Every day hundreds of service men and women will see that,” she said. “They’ll see not only an artist recognized their sacrifices, but a whole town.”
Gunshop owner Rick Murray said he is very proud of the mural that spans the side of his business.
“It demonstrates our thankfulness for having freedom and our expression of our thankfulness to those who fight for our freedom,” he said, adding that like the mural says, freedom isn’t free.
Like it does for Wilkerson-Arp, the meaning behind the mural holds a special significance to him.
“I am in the firearms business. I believe in the Second Amendment. But I believe in freedom,” he said. “It’s a very real situation in Jacksonville. We’re very close to understanding, close to having a very symbiotic relationship with the Marine Corps base.”
The business owner said he hopes awareness will come from the mural.
“We hope that people recognize that we’re trying to support our troops and provide an avenue for other people to support our troops,” he said.
The process of painting the mural began in January, which Wilkerson-Arp said was the most difficult part because of the weather. Being an artist, she wasn’t able to bundle her hands from the cold. She laughed as she described having hand warmers in each mitten and even in her shoes.
Aside from dealing with the winter weather, the artist said painting the mural on the side of a building in the middle of town made her feel vulnerable.
“I paint every day, but very few times do I have an audience,” she said, adding that she hated when she had to leave the mural at the end of the day for fear the community would think it was finished. “There are always more things I could do to make it better. But I am happy with the end result.”
Upon the completion of the mural at the end of April, the artist snapped a photograph of the mural, which she’s using to sell prints. Proceeds from the prints will go directly to the North Carolina chapter of Heroes on the Water, a kayak fishing program that helps veterans return from the war and serves as a therapy for them.
“I knew (giving to the program) would speak to a lot of locals’ interests too,” the artist said. “The mural is part of this community now.”
Wilkerson-Arp is selling prints of her photo on her Etsy profile. An eight by 10 inch print will cost $20 and an 11 by 14 inch print will cost $28. She also offers the option of including the town name on the prints ordered.
“The thing that makes you most happy with (art) is a supportive community,” she said. “An attempt to raise money (for a good cause), that’s what will make me happier.”
Murray is making plans to fundraise through the mural as well.
He explained that he’s hoping to have T-shirts, hats, and other items made that feature the mural soon. All proceeds, he said, will go to Semper Fi Fund, which provides financial assistance to post-9/11 wounded veterans and their families.
This isn’t the first time that Wilkerson-Arp has raised money from her artwork.
In her 10th grade year and in the wake of 9/11, she raised $3,500 for the Widows and Orphans Fund and the fund to go toward the 9/11 memorial in New York City. The money was raised through a painting of an eagle, holding the American flag in its talons, soaring out of the ashes of the World Trade Center. The painting is still sitting in Union Square Park in the police station there, Wilkerson-Arp said.
“I don’t think there will ever be a time in my career that will top that,” Wilkerson-Arp said. “This is my attempt to do something like that. I’ll always be chasing that (moment).”
The artist’s father, Keith Wilkerson, expressed his pride in his daughter.
“I’m proud of her,” he said. “When she said, ‘I don’t want to make any money off it,’ I wasn’t surprised. That’s the kind of person she is.”
While Wilkerson-Arp said that though the struggle is that people will remember a piece of art but not the artist, she’s happy to leave a piece of her in the Sneads Ferry community, even if no one remembers the person who painted it.
“If I can leave behind art that means something to me, to others, and leave something meaningful in the community…that’s what I want,” she said.
Aside from the happiness she gets from creating art in the community, Wilkerson-Arp said she feels she’s not using her gift to its full potential if she’s not using it to give to others.
“I spent my whole life around heroes and I’m not going to be one” she said. “But I can do this.”