Sunday, June 1, 2014

Magnum Opus

Thanks to gifted muralists, hulking floodwalls in 13 towns and cities on both sides of the Ohio River have been transformed into open-air art museums, featuring more than 7,000 feet of breathtaking paintings depicting local history—including the 1913 flood

Vacation idea: spend a week or more bicycling or driving along both sides of the Ohio River from Wellsville, Ohio, to Cairo, Illinois, viewing massive concrete floodwalls in 13 cities in five states. Over the past two decades, hulking walls of concrete 14 to 30 feet high have been transformed from gray faceless monoliths into artists’ canvases, 
A thousand feet of concrete floodwalls are an outdoor art museum as the Wall-to-Wall murals in Paducah, Kentucky. Bronze markers at the base of each panel describes what is portrayed; lights above panels illuminate the murals at night. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010.
opening vivid windows into a scene beyond or back in time, thanks to the talents of cadres of artists. The vibrant living colors impel you to imagine yourself in the midst of a past event, some scenes so vividly three-dimensional you feel you could literally walk into them.

Immortalized in floodwall paintings are singing cowboy Roy Rogers rearing up on his trusty horse Trigger (Rogers in his boyhood attended school in Portsmouth, Ohio), trailblazer Daniel Boone (who operated a trading post in Point Pleasant, West Virginia), and actress and jazz singer Rosemary Clooney (who grew up in Maysville, Kentucky). Seeing their images larger than life, one marvels that so many colorful, well-known figures in American history called this or that Ohio River town home for at least a part of their lives. 

Since floods are also a major part of Ohio River history and life (the floodwalls 
Both the 1913 and 1937 floods are portrayed in this panel at Paducah, along with the earlier 1884 flood. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010.
themselves were built for mitigation after the great Ohio River flood of 1937), nearly half (six) of the murals include depictions of floods, including of 1913. 

If your timing is right, you may be lucky enough to see drop cloths, scaffolding, and artists at work: Each year more panels appear, while others need to be touched up due to winter’s weathering. Moreover, seeing how effective the murals have been in drawing tourism, other cities are also considering murals for their own floodwalls. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, I made four pilgrimages up and down the Ohio River to photograph all that existed then—but would welcome hearing updates from readers, city leaders, or the muralists themselves.

“Socio-political activism
Robert Dafford painting murals at
Point Pleasant, WV. This single artist and
his associates have painted three-quarters of
the Ohio River floodwall murals.
Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010.

Although a quarter of the murals have been painted by half a dozen local artists, three-quarters are the monumental handiwork of one man: Louisiana-based muralist Robert Dafford and his various associates. For Dafford, painting the murals has, in his words, “become socio-political activism.” Ohio River towns are realizing the value of public art not only to attract tourism, but also to preserve and retell local history for their residents. So they are securing grants to make floodwall murals a centerpiece of downtown revitalization. 

The murals portray not only history, but also restore vistas of the Ohio River that the floodwalls block. “I’ve tried to make the feeling of ‘wallness’ go away,” explained Dafford, who began painting the 2,200 feet of floodwalls in Portsmouth, Ohio, 22 years ago. “When I first visited Portsmouth in 1992, the massive blank gray concrete floodwall made downtown feel hemmed in, almost as if it were in prison,” he recalled. So using clever perspective techniques to create the illusion of great depth, Dafford painted some panels to look like Greek columns through which people now see river scenes and hills beyond. So powerful is the three-dimensional depth of Dafford’s illusionist techniques that the walls utterly seem to disappear: with some panels, in fact, 
No, this is not a bridge but an optical illusion created by the
skill of Robert Dafford in the mural panel at Court and
Front streets in Portsmouth, Ohio. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
a viewer must approach to within a few feet before the 3-D effect flattens out. “Today if you look down Court Street at the floodwall from a block away, it feels as though the wall is not even there.” 

Below is a quick guide to the floodwall murals in 13 Ohio River towns in five states (Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois) from east to west, along with a couple of suggested side trips to two additional towns in Ohio and one in Missouri. Much of the trip along the northern side of the Ohio River follows the Ohio River Scenic Byway, which runs 967 miles through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Much of it allows you to keep the magnificent river in view. Driving
Visiting all the Ohio River floodwall murals (plus adding Cape Girardeau) is a meandering trip of about 1,000 miles. Base outline map of the Ohio River basin: Wikipedia, plus my approximate plots of the towns and cities with floodwall murals. (Not shown: Steubenville is near Wellsville and Aberdeen is across the Ohio River from Maysville.)
along the southern side is less straightforward, but detours are worth it as half the murals are in West Virginia and several Kentucky towns. Although Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is a bit north of where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi, if you’ve made it all the way to Cairo, Illinois, the 1,000-foot-long floodwall murals of that Missouri city are eminently worth the detour.

Wellsville, Ohio. The 270 feet of Wellsville floodwall murals seem to be in a surprising place: not directly paralleling the Ohio River, but crossing Main Street while
One section of the Wellsville, Ohio, floodwall murals by Gina Hampson are graced with a small park. Hampson has painted the concrete floodwall to look like bricks. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2009
entering Wellsville from Route 7. Only the hulking shape of the walls suggest they are floodwalls, because local muralist Gina Hampson meticulously painted the concrete surface to look like red bricks. A project of the Wellsville Revitalization Committee from 2005 through 2012, Hampson’s panels depict local Wellsville schools, shops, and other landmarks, as well as historical events—such as when President Abraham Lincoln visited Wellsville by train on his way from Springfield, Illinois, to his second inauguration in Washington, D.C., in 1865, just a month before his assassination. The Wellsville floodwall murals also portray people important to local history—one depicting the Wellsville Revitalization Committee members picnicking (and where the artist herself is shown painting their names in the lower right corner).

Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Historically, flooding in Point Pleasant has involved the Kanawha River as much as the Ohio River, so the floodwalls flank both rivers. “Instead of many individual pictures covering many aspects of their history, we decided to
Dafford's murals at Point Pleasant, WV are single scenes hundreds of feet long. Loudspeakers atop the panels allow dramatic narration and sounds of battle for tours of school groups. At the far left is an amphitheater. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
focus on a few and make them extravaganzas, making each stretch of 100 to 250 feet a single monumental scene depicting a battle or other event important to the city's history,” Dafford explained. 

Detail of a battle scene at Point Pleasant, painted by
Dafford. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
One scene depicts 19-year-old George Washington surveying in the wilderness and arriving at “this Pleasant Point” to meet with Benjamin Franklin and some land speculators who had formed the Great Ohio Company, intending to form a colony called Vandalia, which would have encompassed most of what today is West Virginia and Kentucky. (Before Dafford’s mural, who knew that on the eve of the American Revolution there were plans afoot for a fourteenth colony, with Point Pleasant as its capital?) It also depicts Lord Dunmore’s War fought in 1774; one 160-foot section of it, portraying the Battle of Point Pleasant, details more than 2,000 individual figures locked in mortal combat. The vast mural surrounds a riverfront amphitheater, which is wired with speakers to recreate the sounds of shooting guns and war cries in a multimedia presentation for school field trips. The other epic multi-panel mural portrays a life-sized Shawnee village, detailing the building of summer shelters, the tanning of animal skins, the grinding of corn, and other activities of vanished native daily life.

Catlettsburg, Kentucky. More gems from Dafford’s team, including collaborations

The work of Robert Dafford, Benny Graeff, and Herb Roe appears in Catlettsburg, Kentucky.
Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2009
Catlettsburg panel shows 1937 flood; post at left
shows heights of 1937 and 1913 floods plus two others.
Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2009
with his main associates of the 1990s, Benny Graeff and Herb Roe, adorn the floodwalls in Catlettsburg. Notable are the image of the major 1937 Ohio River flood that prompted many cities to start to build floodwalls in the first place. Also clever is the way a protruding floodwall pumping station building is incorporated into the long panel showing the unloading of a barge in 1910.

Some of the murals at Ashkand, Kentucky.
Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2009
Ashland, Kentucky. Inspired by the murals at Catlettsburg, Ashland artist Denise Spaulding and several other local talents painted a short sequence of murals depicting Ashland in World War II. Not all the murals are in one place: several about quilts and local history are scattered about the floodwall that forms the border of a nearby parking lot. A September 15, 2013 article in the Daily Independent announces two new panels are now being painted, depicting the region’s black heritage. 

Ironton, Ohio. A grass-roots project of local Ohio artists, students, and hometown volunteers, the Ironton floodwall, nearly 500 feet long, was the first to have murals painted facing the Ohio River itself rather than facing the town, so they are visible only 
The 500 feet of murals on the floodwall at Ironton, Ohio, include
this depiction of a flood (without identifying whether
it is from 1913 or 1937). Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2008
to riverside picnickers and passing riverboats rather than from the road. Supervising the work from 1990 to 2004 was Gary Tillis, then Art Coordinator of Ohio University Southern in Ironton (now retired), who involved some of the university's art students painting backgrounds. The locomotive for the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton railroad, the sternwheel paddleboat The Ironton, and the Waterloo Wonders basketball team were the handiwork of local Ironton billboard artist Tom Swick. Tillis himself picked up a brush in 2002, along with his assistant Patty Shively, when the Purple Heart Society contracted them to paint a panel memorializing Lawrence County veterans who died in conflict. When I was last there in 2010, the murals were fading and did not seem to be maintained, so viewers who want to see them should do so sooner rather than later.

Portsmouth, Ohio. Portsmouth was the city that pioneered floodwall murals as a tool for downtown revitalization. Feeling that it would be best to have all the murals in the style of one artist, the city contracted with Robert Dafford Murals in May 1993. Dafford, 
No single long shot can do justice to nearly half a mile of murals at Portsmouth, Ohio.
Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2008
with young local Portsmouth art student Herb Roe and other helpers, spent the next 10 summers transforming the entire floodwall into colorful views of Portsmouth past and present. Today, the theme of “2,000 Years of History, 2,000 Feet of Art” has made Portsmouth a major go-to destination—so much so that the headquarters of the tourism bureau for all of Scioto County relocated to Front Street, 30 feet directly across from the murals (and on the same side of the street where the murals’ descriptive markers are). Today, any time day or night, visitors may be seen strolling along the floodwalls and gazing at the panels, actually speaking in hushed voices as if in an art museum. 

The flooding of Alexandria at an unspecified year is one
of two Portsmouth panels on floods.
Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010

Two illusions about the panels are especially arresting. The first is their remarkable three-dimensional depth, as if one is seeing straight through the wall. “I can’t just take a picture and transfer it to the wall,” Dafford explained. “The walls are so high, and tilted away from the viewer, that I have to cheat the rules of perspective like crazy to make a scene work for where the viewer is most likely to be standing.” Moreover, the historical scenes are in fresh colors of today, which create a sensation of watching events from a century ago happening right now. “I want to make historical scenes look real,” Dafford added. “I spend a long time in a place to study the local light, the plants, the animals, the clouds—which are different wherever you go—so I can portray them exactly right.” 

The 1913 and 1937 floods are also depicted at Portsmouth.
Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
Exactly right, indeed. Check out the contemporary summertime scene of pedestrians and a cyclist, located at the gate of the floodwall where the base of Court Street intersects with the eastern edge of Front Street. So right are the colors and so compelling the perspective that you'd swear you are looking between stone columns of a bridge at the Ohio River, beholding the tree-covered hills beyond.

Mural panel of Portsmouth motorcycle club in 1913 (!)
is a point of pilgrimage. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
Some panels have taken on special meaning for some groups, added Bill Howley, Project Director of the Ohio River Border Initiative (ORBI, a joint project of the Ohio Arts Council and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History designed to support artists and arts organizations along the Ohio/West Virginia border). “The Portsmouth Motorcycle Club is one of the first motorcycle clubs in the country, and one panel shows the early club,” Howley explained. “One day just as I was looking at that panel, five or six people on Harleys pulled up before it and sat quietly viewing it. Turns out that seeing that painting has become a kind of pilgrimage for cross-county motorcyclists.” 

The river side of the Portsmouth floodwall features local stars.
Photo credit: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
Make sure also to walk through the floodwall gate to the river side of the wall to behold the impressive line of white stars signed by notable Americans having some connection to Portsmouth (such as lyric soprano Kathleen Battle). And also take time to see the murals on isolated stretches of floodwalls such as those flanking Second Street entering downtown, with its tribute to Portsmouth Labor Union painted primarily by Brett Chigoy. 

Maysville, Kentucky. Beginning in 1998, Dafford painted the floodwall murals in Maysville, Kentucky, including two panels on the river side of the wall dedicated to 
Main part of the Maysville, Kentucky, floodwall murals. But be sure also to look for others on the river side of the walls, as well as also down several neighboring streets. Photo credit: Trudy E. Bell, 2008
local-girl-makes-good movie star Rosemary Clooney. Also make sure to walk through the town and note where scenes are strategically placed at the ends of several perpendicular streets to render the wall itself invisible by opening a painted vista of the river itself or a historical event.

Covington, Kentucky. As much an attraction for Greater Cincinnati as for Covington, the 18 murals on the 1,000-foot floodwall face the river itself and are just a 15-minute
The floodwall murals in Covington, Kentucky, face Cincinnati across the Ohio River.
Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2009
walk across the blue Roebling Bridge from Bengals Stadium. “Jason Brake was the main artist and foreman in Covington,” Dafford explained. Note especially the powerful three-dimensional illusion of the scene of fireworks over Cincinnati in 2008, including of a child viewing them at the lower left between painted stone columns. The 
The Covington murals include a panel of the 1937 flood. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2009
Covington murals inspired community development, encouraging several cafes to open at Madison Landing at the far western edge, bringing a huge increase of walking traffic to a formerly unvisited riverfront.

Jeffersonville, Indiana. Across the Second Street Bridge from Louisville, Kentucky (a great eating city to visit any time!) is the town of Jeffersonville, Indiana, which was dramatically saved from the 1913 flood by the quick willing labor of nearly 1,000 young Indiana Reformatory prisoners in shoring up a levee and a railroad fill—and whom the 
The trick at Jeffersonville is to avoid lunch or dinner time, when parked cars block a good view of the floodwall murals. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
city of Jeffersonville then thanked with a grand banquet (see “The Prisoners’ Feast”). On a short stretch of floodwall lining a parking lot are a dozen panels depicting historical aspects of Jeffersonville, including some by Dafford beginning in 2005. In 2012, two more murals were added by Molly Gruninger.

Paducah Wall to Wall murals with artist Herb Roe on scaffold.
Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
Paducah, Kentucky. Around 1995, the city of Paducah in western Kentucky contracted Dafford to begin its own 1,000-foot-long “Wall to Wall” floodwall mural project with some 60 scenes—second in length only to Portsmouth’s. Originally designed and painted by Dafford with the help of Herb Roe, since about 2005 Roe has largely continued the work independently. 

In Paducah, the sensation of being in an outdoor art museum is particularly strong, because descriptions of each painted scene are cast in bronze at the base of each panel. The murals document such surprises as Paducah’s having a significant role since 1952 in developing nuclear power—who knew? As in Portsmouth, Paducah’s murals are at the heart of the redevelopment of Paducah’s riverfront downtown, now vibrant with art boutiques, shops, and restaurants. 

A nearby stretch of floodwall in Paducah painted with
river scenery by local artists. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
Be sure to walk through the opening in the wall to the river side of it to see additional paintings facing the Ohio River. Local artists have also painted river scenes (as opposed to historical scenes) on hundreds of feet more of the floodwall along the parking lots of some office buildings west of downtown. 

Cannelton, Indiana. Cannelton has a modest floodwall mural depicting local history.
Floodwall mural at Cannelton, Indiana. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2009
A description and map are on Waymarking

Tell City, Indiana. Nine miles west of Cannelton is Tell City, home to another set of modest floodwall murals. Although tucked out of the way, Tell City’s murals includes a 
Tell City's murals, painted by Emilie Young of Hawesville, includes a panel that portrays flooding.
Note artist's scaffold. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2009
panel that depicts either the 1913 or 1937 floods, or both. The only apparent online reference is a Facebook page, which has a few photos showing work on the murals since 2007.

Cairo, Illinois.  Beginning summer 2012, brand new murals began appearing on the levee floodwalls in the city that advertises itself “at the confluence of America” where 
The floodwall murals in Cairo, Illinois, is a project involving members of the community, including these school children, painting in summer 2013. Credit: Cairo River Wall Murals Facebook page
the Ohio River meets the Mississippi. Called the Cairo River Wall Murals, they have a Facebook page with a lot of photographs of artist Chris Helton and others as well as young students priming and painting as well. As these murals were created after I was last in the vicinity, it looks as though there will be another trip to Cairo for me in the future to view and photograph the panels myself!

Extra-Mural Activities
Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Although not on the Ohio River, if you’ve made it as far as Cairo, Illinois, you may as well jaunt another 35 miles up the Mississippi River to 
The Cape Girardeau, Missouri, floodwalls are unusually tall (author is shown for scale). This is only half the murals. Photo: Roxana Bell, 2009
behold the Missouri Wall of Fame—the westernmost truly impressive set of floodwall murals, 24 panels totaling 1,500 feet long. Much of it was painted by Chicago muralist Thomas Melvin. A video on Vimeo explains a bit about the origins and gives a sense of 
The Mississippi River side of the Cape Girardeau floodwall also features murals. Note the enormous floodwall door. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2009
its monumental scale. There are also murals on the river side of the Cape Girardeau floodwall by Leon Heise and Gary West. 

Near the beginning of your trip in the east, after leaving Wellsville, be sure to stop at, Steubenville, Ohio which is known for 25 murals on the sides of its buildings throughout the town—indeed, they inspired Portsmouth for the floodwall murals. Many of Steubenville’s murals are by noted Washington-state muralist Eric Grohe in the 1990s. A walking map appears here.

And when leaving Maysville, Kentucky, keep alert as you drive north across the Ohio River on the Simon Kenton Bridge into Aberdeen, Ohio. Directly ahead, painted on a 
Highway wall on the Ohio side of the Simon Kenton Bridge in Aberdeen, Ohio, was painted by junior high and high school students. Photo: Trudy E. Bell, 2010
concrete highway wall, are four panels of a mural depicting the bridge and the Ohio River in fall colors. No, it’s not a floodwall but a concrete road cut. The creditable paintings there are by the students in grades 7 through 12 of the Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington School District, completed in 2008, attesting to the power of inspiration of public art on concrete canvases. 

All of my images plus the text ©2014 Trudy E. Bell
NOTE: Between 2008 and 2010, I photographed all the Ohio River floodwall murals that existed then plus Cape Girardeau, and amassed a library of perhaps 1,000 images. If any editor wishes to see other images in publication-quality high resolution, e-mail me.

Next time: Benchmarking ‘extreme’

Selected references

This installment is a comprehensive update of two 2010 feature articles I wrote about floodwall murals: “Concrete Canvases in the April issue of Ohio magazine, and “Ohio River floodwall murals bring downtowns,history to life in the Sunday Travel section of the October 17 issue of The Plain Dealer. For the journal Ohio Valley History, I am now researching in greater depth the role this public art on floodwalls may have played in revitalizing Ohio River towns—thus, I would greatly welcome hearing feedback from civic leaders, shop keepers, and others.

Additional information about the National Scenic Byways Program is here with a list here. Maps and information about the Ohio River cenic Byway is here.

More history of the Wellsville floodwall murals is at “Floodwall mural project ready for dedication” and  Wellsville floodwall mural efforts going gangbusters”. A handy map with more images of the walls appears at Waymarking.

More about the Point Pleasant floodwall murals is here. Robert Dafford’s own website captures several panels at Point Pleasant and other floodwalls. See also the front page story of the June 23, 2010 issue of the Point Pleasant Register (scroll down).
A map to the Catlettsburg floodwalls appears here. Plans for extending the murals are announced here.

A map and several images of the Ironton murals is given on this Waymarking page.

The website for the city of Portsmouth has many images of mural panels and some history about the project. Another image is on Scioto County’s website. Another gallery of images appears at the Portsmouth–Scioto County VisitorsBureau as well as on Dafford’s website.

Maysville’s murals are highlighted and described in detail at the city’s website.

The Roebling Murals in Covington are shown on this blog, on Dafford’s own site, and in great detail on the site of Urban Ohio. A handy map appears on Waymarking.

Jeffersonville has no official website with its murals, but one panel Dafford painted appears on his page. Others are highlighted in this 1:19-minute YouTube video by Lincoln Crum.

Many of the original panels in Paducah by Dafford appear at this Paducah site, on this detailed page on Dafford’s site, and on Herb Roe’s Pinterest site.  A commemorative book is also available. All the murals on the entire 1,000-foot floodwall and their brass markers are filmed in this 13:19-minute YouTube video; murals start at minute 1:16. 

There appears to be no official website for the Tell City mural project aside from the Facebook page. A detailed description of each panel plus a map appears on Waymarking,

There appears to be no official website for the Cairo Wall Mural Project aside from the Facebook page. As far as I can determine from the blog posts of the Cairo Association of Teachers, Cairo sixth-graders in 2010 originated the idea to beautify Cairo and make its Ohio River levee floodwall murals as much of an attraction as those in Paducah and Cape Girardeau. After securing permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, work began putting designs on the walls in June 2013.

A little about the floodwalls at Cape Girardeau appears on page 17 of the city's official visitors guide.  

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