Midwestern Murals Deliver Vibrant Public Art

Muskegon, MI, Keokuk, IA and Cincinnati commemorate their histories in grand format

Now, as we wistfully enter the waning days of summer and begin to think about kids going back to school, it seems a fitting time to take a look at some eye-popping murals that were painted on Midwestern walls throughout this past season. When so much of contemporary culture is shepherding the populace into a cocoon-like existence that encourages people to pursue their interests in isolation, it’s inspiring to witness the preponderance of murals and other public-art pursuits, which provide us with sorely needed common experiences.
Community Beautification
Founded in 1996, ArtWorks is a Cincinnati-based nonprofit organization that strives to engage the public to support and enrich the city’s artistic community. In 2006, the organization began its summer mural-painting program, which hires aspiring artists ages 14 to 21 to bedeck previously bare (or graffiti-covered) walls with immense murals in all of the city’s 52 neighborhoods. According to the organization, it’s painted 67 murals in 34 neighborhoods thus far, and now is extending its civic-embellishment program across the river into Kentucky. Mark Mallory, Cincinnati’s mayor, praised the mural program for reducing crime and vandalism, boosting public safety and enhancing community pride.
This year’s program entails the painting of 11 murals. This mural, on East Eighth St. downtown, celebrates the work of Cincinnati wildlife artist John Rutheven. This outsized reproduction of a Rutheven painting depicts Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Lead artist Tim Parsley coordinated the project’s efforts with three teaching artists and 15 apprentices.
The Pride of Muskegon
As in many Midwestern small towns, Muskegon, MI’s local economy revolved around the lumber industry at the dawn of the 20th Century. A prime example of commerce’s interconnected nature, lumber-cutting equipment required frequent machinery upgrades, which gave rise to the local metal-foundry industry.
To instill a sense of civic pride, Muskegon County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau director Bob Lukens and other local officials pursued the production of a large downtown mural. After having procured funds from Eagle Alloy Inc., a Muskegon steel foundry, and the Community Foundation for Muskegon Co., they commissioned Jay Allen, the owner of ShawCraft Sign Co. (Machesney Park, IL) and a longtime Walldog, to paint a 12 x 20-ft. mural on the Russell Block Building downtown. Lukens had previously worked with Allen for the painting of several murals along Illinois’ 179-mile stretch of the Lincoln Highway. Allen and his assistants, Nancy Bennett, who co-owns Centerville, IA-based Dannco, and Chicago muralist Robert Valadez, painted the mural. Using photos furnished by local officials, Allen projected the pattern onto the wall at dusk with an overhead projector, and the Walldog trio painted the project on 4 x 10-ft., 3A Composites, Dibond® composite-material panels, which are secured within a frame, with exterior-white primer and Nova Color acrylic-latex mural paints.
We’ve Got the Power
On the banks of the Mississippi River, Keokuk, IA, a town with approximately 10,000 residents, has one claim to fame: it’s home to the Keokuk Dam and Power Plant, which was once the largest hydroelectric plant in the world (it’s still in operation today, as part of Lock and Dam 19, and provides power to areas as far away as St. Louis). The plant was built in 1913; local officials staged River Power Days, a parade and festival to honor its centennial.
Amidst parades and museum exhibits, a 36 x 10-ft. mural installed on the plant’s wall served as the occasion’s crowning event. Nancy Bennett, the project’s coordinator, was speaking at a four-state Main Street conference about the Walldogs’ public-art murals, and was engaged by Main Street Keokuk. Other contributors included Michael Clark, owner of Clark Signs and Fine Art Studio (Aledo, IL), who designed the mural; and Jay Allen, Tom and Kathy Durham, owners of Durham Signs (Herrmann, MO), Steve and McKinley Estes, signmakers from Grand Rivers, KY, and Charlie McCrady, a Paducah, KY-based signmaker, collaborated to paint the project. The crew set the pattern with an electronic pouncer, and painted the project with high-content, acrylic primer and Nova acrylic paints.