Take 3 with Ernel Martinez, the Artist Behind the New AJ McClung YMCA Mural

written by Sherricka Day




As you drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, you will notice that things look a little different. There’s a new roundabout near Brewer Elementary School. The sidewalks are broader, giving pedestrians a safer and easier commute. There’s more greenery. And then there’s the A.J. McClung YMCA. It has gone from being a monochromatic, beige building that people just pass by, to a bright, vibrant conversation piece, with eye-catching public art that makes people slow down to look at. This new public art mural is the result of a year-long community initiative to create public art in neighborhoods that are devoid of art or have little or no access to it.


The mural pays homage to A.J. McClung, who served as the city’s first African American Mayor in 1973; Ma Rainey, known as the Mother of the Blues; Alma Thomas, the first African American Woman to have a solo art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art; and to the youth in our community.


Ernel Martinez, a Philadelphia native, is the artist behind the mural. He most recently painted a mural in honor of Kobe and Gigi Bryant in Tustin Park in Philadelphia. One thing about Martinez – he believes in community and collaboration. While he came up with the concept for the A.J. McClung YMCA, he did not work alone. It was truly a community effort. Martinez worked with local artists, YMCA campers, and students from Columbus State University to complete the mural.


I had the opportunity to have a chat with Martinez about the project. I asked him a few questions to learn more about him, the work that he does, and the power art has in a community.


Q: When did you fall in love with art?


A: "Oh wow. Great question. My earliest memory of art or drawing was trying to draw a picture of a horse. My mom was trying to help me, but I thought her horse looked like a dog! So, I kept drawing it to try to make it look right."


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Martinez recalled how his school had an artist come to the school to paint a mural on their playground. He had no idea what a mural was. Martinez was pulled out of class to help with the mural. He said the experience was cool. This is when he had a better awareness of art. He feels like he was blessed with his talents because as he continued to practice art, it came very easy to him. It was natural and progression.


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Q: What made you say yes to doing the mural at AJ McClung?


A: Getting the opportunity to meet new communities is what I like doing. When you have been blessed with a talent, you want to share it. I see myself as a servant to the community. When I work with a community, I don’t come in to extract anything from them. I don’t want to take anything from them. I want to tell their story. I want them to be involved in the project and feel like they are part of something.


When I came to Columbus, I went to The Columbus Museum. I began learning about Columbus culture. And I questioned why there was no public art representing the legends in the community. Why wasn’t there a mural of Ma Rainey? I saw this mural at the YMCA as an opportunity to create art for AJ McClung and other heroes.


Q: What does art do for a community?


A: Art has transformative powers. I did a multi-year project with Yale University, where the Psychology Department did a study on the psychology of art on people in a marginalized community. Over the years, they had conversations with people in the community and talked about how art made them feel. The study showed that people enjoyed seeing art in their community, it lifted their spirits and made them feel good. Art is powerful. The moment you take art out of a community, people feel like something has been taken away. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen art removed due to development or other reasons. That absence changes how people feel. Public art becomes a landmark in the neighborhood, especially in a black community. Representation means everything. Kids identify with the art. The impact is long-lasting. It creates a sense of pride. When art is cut from schools or not taught at all, it takes something from the students. Imagine if art was cut from school when I was growing up. I don’t know what I would be doing. STEM is great, but the A is transformative.


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I told Martinez that I had my three-year old niece with me at the mural program and reveal. She was so excited about everything that was happening around her that he felt inspired to paint. She told me a few times that she needed to paint and draw! “Thank you for sharing that with me," said Martinez. "That’s powerful. That’s what this is all about.”


More on the AJ McClung YMCA


For over 100 years, the AJ McClung YMCA has been a part of Columbus’s story. It was established to provide a safe space for African Americans. Its namesake, AJ McClung used the YMCA as a place to engage, educate, and enrich African American youth.*


For many African Americans that attended the “Y” when they were young, there are fond memories of friendships, basketball games, swimming, and other activities that thrive within its walls.


The AJ McClung Mural Project was funded by: Dragonfly Trails

Columbus Consolidated Government

Columbus 2025

Synovus YMCA


*Source – Columbus State University Digital Archives, 13. A.J. McClung YMCA