November / 2005


Floodwall Murals Color Our Cities
by:  

Huge, colorful panels of art beautify, educate, and help revitalize downtown areas

Bison lumber along the great buffalo road, leaving an imprint thousands of years before Europeans arrive.

Kentucky's frontiersmen George Rogers Clark, Simon Kenton, and Daniel Boone huddle before heading north to the Shawnee settlements in the late 1700s.

Margaret Garner hurries her children across the frozen Ohio River on a dusky night—away from a life of slavery and to one, hopefully, of freedom.

The Suspension Bridge, forever linking Covington and Cincinnati, is being built by Augustus Roebling, who would later go on to design the better-known Brooklyn Bridge.

Covington's history, both magnificent and inglorious, is splayed across concrete floodwall panels 20 feet high and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet wide in brilliant color. And on any given day, visitors come in cars and on foot to tour this visual history lesson.

The same scene is played out in the historic downtowns of Paducah and Maysville, and to a smaller degree in Ashland and Catlettsburg, where one mural after another puts the city's legacy on display. The vast majority of them have been painted by Louisiana native Robert Dafford and his team. Dafford is considered to be one of the foremost mural artists in the United States, known for his dramatic, large-scale illusions.

The impact of the riverboat and the railroad. The transition from carriages to cars. The industrial revolution. The 1937 flood. Unions. The arts.

Floodwall murals depict a town's history and heritage, record its milestones and memories, and give a community meaning and context. In recalling its attractions in painted scenes, with realism that practically invites viewers to step into the panel, it becomes an attraction in itself, a landmark that provides a focal point and a scenic walkway, helps revitalize downtown areas, and increases visitor traffic.

“We don't claim responsibility for a city's renaissance, but we are a catalyst,” says Dafford, who just began his 10th year painting in Paducah and his 12th year in Portsmouth, Ohio, which now boasts 55 murals (located across the Ohio River from South Shore in northeastern Kentucky).

Says Rosemarie Steele, marketing director at the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau: “Just imagine the historic downtown with a cold, gray, concrete floodwall. Visitors comment on the murals on a daily basis. This colorful and meaningful project not only serves as an engaging entrance to the riverfront, but it creates a place for people to enjoy a leisurely stroll as they view the images and read the interpretive panels.

“There are so many levels of purpose and influence that are the direct result of Paducah's Wall to Wall mural project. Locals of all ages are instilled with a sense of knowledge and pride as they see the area's history come to life,” says Steele. “I always enjoy seeing school groups touring the murals. What a wonderful way to teach children the history of their own community and enable them to see how it relates to the history of the nation. The murals also are evidence that art forms can take on a meaningful purpose.”

Preserving and presenting history is but one purpose. According to Dafford, having a legacy like the floodwall murals draws visitors back to a downtown historic district, one that, in most cases, has suffered sometimes rampant neglect. It becomes one element in an overall revitalization effort to return a city to its heyday as a center of commerce and social life.

“So many paintings in these types of projects are about what the downtowns looked like when everyone lived downtown—when the historic district was the economic and social hub. Seeing these hubs painted alive again, in a very contemporary manner of painting, but presenting something that happened 100 years or more ago, helps people imagine the downtown coming alive again. People start thinking, ‘Yeah, it could look like that again.‘ ”

Dafford says, “The idea of historic districts getting saved as historic districts is an ideal and cherished goal. It takes a lot; we‘re not the only factor in that happening.”

Adds Norm Wagner, committee co-chair of the Legacy-Roebling Murals at the Covington Riverfront: “These projects are supposed to impact people on multiple levels and are being done for a number of reasons: beautifying the community, reminding people of the significant history of northern Kentucky, and improving the area. The ultimate goal is more visitor traffic and more business and economic participation in the area.”

Stained-glass windows. Church steeples. African-American history. Native American mysteries. Civil War strife. The impact on a town of an extraordinary life.

In each given city, the number of panels and the scope of the project are determined by accessible and visible spaces adjacent to downtown and historical districts. Covington's Legacy-Roebling Murals Project has 18 murals (some painted over double panels), including three currently in the works and four yet to be painted. All should be completed in 2006. In Maysville, nine murals depicting four centuries of history are finished.

In Paducah, where 48 panels have been completed, refurbishment and maintenance work on the murals—some nearly 10 years old—will begin next year to touch up borders and faded areas. They have been a part of Paducah's cityscape and sensibility for so long that a new theme, Art, Rhythm and Rivers, was developed. Steele says the murals embody the theme and give accreditation to Paducah's role as an artist community.

“The murals affirm that we have an art-friendly culture and provide a creative, inspiring view,” she says. “As time evolves, the interest seems to be increasing. When all is quiet and everything is closed, the murals still provide a place to 'be.’ ”

For Dafford, who has a team of artists helping to complete these projects, working on such a large scale, outdoors, does present its challenges: “When you lay out a picture on such a big scale, it’s difficult to keep the image from being distorted. It’s so big, just the nature and shape of your eyeball distorts lines. There is the amount of paint involved—thousands and thousands of gallons of a special acrylic industrial coating—and the difficulty in covering such a huge area.”

Explains Dafford, “On canvas, you use 1- or 2-inch brushes; 12-inch rollers are needed on the murals just to block in the wall to cover it completely—and you have to have three full coats. You see the murals from farther away, so you need bolder strokes than you’d put on a canvas, even though the colors are more muted. There are a lot of special considerations because of scale, distance, and apparent distortions.”

Years ago, when Dafford first began painting large-scale illusions that look real enough to fool the eye, the appeal was in creating on a canvas larger than peripheral vision, so that the viewer’s brain is more likely to accept the illusion. Once he mastered the peculiarities of the work, he turned his brushes (and rollers) to historical paintings.

”What’s become more important to me over the years is that the people who live (in the city where he’s painting) come by and watch the painting develop day by day. They see the process and comprehend what I do because every day they watch what I do.”

Dafford says, “In watching the process of us working, sweating, struggling, people see it’s a job and they become a little less resistant to their own children doing that job—that is important to me. That goes on and on after I’m gone.”

As does the legacy of the floodwall murals and all the history they relate.






CITIES WITH FLOODWALL MURALS

The year 2005 marks a decade of painting Paducah’s rich history on floodwall murals by Dafford muralists. According to Paducah’s project coordinator Ro Morse, other murals are in the planning stages for different sections of the floodwall and possibly for a new marina and Greenways Trails that are planned.

“There is no official ‘end’ to this amazing project,” says Morse. “We look forward to a long-time partnership with Robert Dafford and his team of talented muralists.”

One of those muralists is Herb Roe—the only one of the team who has been involved in all of the paintings in Paducah.

Says Morse: “Herb has researched and painted some of all and all of several of the murals.”

In each city where mural work is under way, funding for the individual paintings is derived from private individuals, families, and businesses. Topic ideas are generally suggested by members of the community and mural committees. Criteria for topic consideration include ideas that illustrate a community’s commercial and industrial growth, social life, and agricultural heritage, among others.

In Catlettsburg, the county seat of Boyd County, Dafford and his team—Benny Graeff in particular, who is now in charge of completing the project—have painted nine of the 17 panels of floodwall. In Ashland, muralist Denise Spaulding has completed six murals.

Van Back, director of community development for the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association, says, “Just from comments we have received here and around the state, the murals serve many purposes: they have attracted many tourists to see them; they have provided an added beauty and interest to the downtown area; and they are a vital part of the revitalization of the downtown.”






KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: KENTUCKY MAIN STREET REVITALIZATION

For more information about other downtown revitalization projects, click here: main street program