Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Arkadelphia - painting begins

After five intensive weeks of research and design, Arkadelphians began painting their new mural on Main Street. It was overcast with intermittent rain, but that didn't keep folks away.

There is something transformative about lending a hand to a civic project like this. Its scale, its seductive color, and its potential as a new embodiment of the town's spirit inspires people (many of whom hadn't heard about the project until they drove by and saw us painting) to want to say 'I helped' and be able to point to the very spot they painted.

We begin by blocking in large areas of color in the background, so the mural initially resembles an abstract painting made up of interlocking geometric shapes. Later, figures and other elements of the composition will be projected and painted in on top of the background colors. Community painting is also an opportunity for people not involved with the design process to learn about the project, talk about its subject, and visit with friends and fellow streetside critics.

I've always been interested in how this public activity seems to enable and encourage a kind of civic interaction that can be hard to come by these days. It used to be that residents of small town or neighborhood would have many opportunities to bump into each other - at the bank, post office, and library to name a few. But with the advent of new computer technology, we no longer need to go to these places, we can do all our errands from home - alone.

So a big mural like this presents a forum and point of reference for striking up a conversation about the weather, the economy, the government and what it all means. By making it look fun, ala Tom Sawyer, we also get a lot of people to paint and thereby make their mark into their community's unfolding story.
Original sketch by Norman Rockwell of Tom Sawyer
 laughing while others do the painting.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Shadows of Arkadelphia

In preparation for transferring the mural design, we rehearsed with the digital projector. As we worked out the angles and proportions, everyone was invited to shadow play. A great night, it was like an  improvised community dance parade. Here's a glimpse. (Thanks to Jordan and Ashley for shooting many of these photos.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

"Painting a City's Portrait: Work begins on Arkadelphia mural"

from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

by Wayne Bryan
September 19, 2012

— Dozens of Arkadelphia residents gathered under cloudy skies and an intermittent mist to be part of the city’s history on Saturday. Elementary school children painted alongside their friends, mothers and grandmothers. City officials joined newcomers and groups of teenagers to place the first colors in a municipal mural on the side of the Honeycomb Restaurant on Main Street.

Scott Holbrook and Betty Gentry apply color to the municipal mural being created in Arkadelphia. Clark County residents were invited to paint the background of the artwork that will cover one wall of the Honeycomb Restaurant on Main Street. Photo by Wayne Bryan
“The people are putting in the background colors in sections that we have drawn in,” said Dave Loewenstein, a nationally recognized muralist from Lawrence, Kan. “They are painting from the ground up. For safety reasons, we are not going to let them get on a lift and paint up higher. Later, Jordan, Ashley and I will be painting the different designs and figures.” The city “won” the project from the Mid-America Arts Alliance in Kansas City, Mo., said Farrell Ford, a Clark County artist and interim executive director of the Clark County Arts and Humanities Council. She said the arts alliance, along with the Arkansas Arts Council, announced a large grant for a mural in an Arkansas city and invited communities to submit proposals for their cities.

“Five cities applied, but only one city could be picked, and Arkadelphia is that city,” Ford said. The muralist and his assistants for the project, Topeka, Kan., artist Ashley Laird, along with a mural apprentice, Jordan Karpe of Little Rock, arrived in Arkadelphia in August and toured the community. “This was really my first opportunity to spend any time in Arkansas,” Loewenstein said. “I have been struck by the beauty of the area. It is an oasis of nature in the middle of the United States. It seems there are not a lot of people in this part of the state, but plenty of mountains, rivers and trees — lots of trees.”

The design for the city’s mural has been created by the artist based on the comments from people who have been meeting weekly to discuss what kind of painting would make the right portrait for the city, Ford said. “As many as 50 people took part in those meetings at one time or another, but a group of about 20 kept coming back,” Ford said. “They got into it, going to the library and finding out more about the history of the area and figuring out what might best represent us.” The artist said the 20 Arkadelphia residents who took part were the most democratic of groups. “They selected themselves, by always showing up and getting involved,” Loewenstein said. “It is not a committee; it's a team. The members ranged in age from 8 years old to someone who was 84, I believe. We are visitors here, listening and learning and not as familiar with the history of this place, so we rely on local people to help us understand what is important.”

As he often does before painting a mural in a town, Loewenstein walked around the city, once following the Feaster Trail into the woods to find the historic overlook some call the Desoto Bluff that overlooks the Ouachita River north of the city. The bluff was mentioned in some of the first reports from explorers of the region, after Arkansas became part of the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. The regular discussions, about what scenes and symbols best caught the spirit of Arkadelphia, could become heated at times. Loewenstein said the depth of feelings and the variety of ideas expressed make the creative process of designing the mural fun. “There were different points of view, but we worked it out together,” he said.

The team selected the theme of education, calling it a “strong part of the city’s culture and economy.” Ford, who has helped coordinate the project from the beginning, agrees with the mural being centered on education. “The first thing you think of is the two colleges (Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University),” she said. “I am not sure we could have survived without education and the students. Things are different in town when they show up each year.”

Loewenstein said the mural should reflect a sense of Arkadelphia — its place, its industry, people and aspirations. However, the artist said the project will have a poetic feel, “without a lot of who, what and where.” The phrase created to guide the project was “The Journey From a Dream to the Promise.”

The artist said the left side of the design includes a young man sitting on a porch holding a pine seedling, symbolizing potential. “Reaching out to the young man is an allegorical figure representing the past and present mentors and teachers who have guided Arkadelphia’s young people,” Loewenstein said as he pointed out some of the elements of the mural’s design. “With the other hand, she gestures toward Arkadelphia’s Promise.” The Promise is a community effort that will aid every Arkadelphia High School graduate go to college, if accepted under the program’s criteria. At the other end of the mural, the young man, with a diploma in hand, hands off the seedling to a little girl who begins her journey.

Other elements of the blockwide painting include the bluff along the Ouachita; pottery decorations from the Caddo people, who lived in the area before Europeans came; a honeycomb, a reference to the Group Living restaurant where the mural is painted; and the salt kettle that is kept in front of the Clark County Courthouse. The volunteer painters were invited so the community could become part of the project. “We have had people working on really big shapes and blocks of colors,” Loewenstein said. “We want people to feel ownership of the wall. It is theirs.”

Tamara Adams of Arkadelphia brought her daughters Sierra, 15; Tanner, 12; and Xander, 9, to paint on the wall after going to the Clark County Fair. “I’m friends with a member of the local arts guild, and the 4-H has been involved in the project, and it looked like fun,” Adams said. “I brought the kids here to paint so they could be a part of history. I think it will be here a long time.”

When the weather cooperates, Loewenstein said, residents will be able to paint some more on the mural, while his team adds the detailed elements. He said the mural should be finished by mid-October if there is enough good weather.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Arkadelphia - The Mural Design

Below is a description of the Arkadelphia mural design as it was presented to and approved by the mural Design Team and Clark County Arts and Humanities Council.  This is intended to give an overall sense of the concept and to identify specific images within the design. Some parts of the design may modified slightly during the painting process.
Mural Design Team reviewing the final design.

The main theme for the mural is Education. Within that theme, we have been guided by the phrase, 'The journey from a dream to The Promise.' 

The architecture or infrastructure of the composition is built from the combined ideas of an arch, a bridge, and a porch / stage. Framing the arch at the upper left and right are soaring pine trees reaching up to the sky with a Cockaded Woodpecker on the left (an endangered species protected by the Ross Foundation) and a majestic Blue Heron on the right commonly seen in the area’s rivers and lakes.
At the base of the arch is a series of panels that from left to right represent:

1) The heart of a pine tree, revealing its history and symbolizing ours
2) Caddo pottery decoration
3) Honeycomb as a reference to Group Living where the mural will be
4) A beehive as another reference to Group Living
5) Caddo pottery decoration
6) The salt kettle in front of the courthouse and a molecular diagram of salt

Within the arch is a tableau that celebrates Arkadelphia’s leadership in education.

Beginning at the far left, a young man sits on the porch holding a pine tree seedling (symbolizing his potential) while gazing into his uncertain future and toward aspirations of Ouachita, Henderson, and early educational leaders Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, who set the ground work for Peake School and thousands of others like it in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Beyond those aspirations, he sees a dynamic allegorical figure that represents the many past and present mentors and teachers who have helped guide Arkadelphia’s young people. As she is conjured up and made real by the designer and apprentice on the steps, she extends her hand as an invitation to the young man and gestures toward the Arkadelphia Promise, which is illuminated under the lantern she carries.

The kick-off ceremony for the Promise at Arkadelphia High School, accompanied by fireworks and music, completes the educational dream of the young man who we see again at the far right. In one hand he carries his diploma and with the other he passes along the symbolic pine seedling to a new student who will soon begin her own journey.

This story is enhanced with specific references to Arkadelphia and Clark County.  Along the length of the porch are references to important institutions and architecture including Caddo dwellings, Hill’s CafĂ©, Peake School, a church, the public library, and the high school stadium.

At center left, a fiddle player sits on the porch and plays the folk tune that is the story of the mural. His music resonates throughout and reminds us that we need to actively maintain a community of giving teachers and mentors who can lead the way for Arkadelphia’s young people.
At the center right, we see a group from our mural design team engaged in the process that has led us here. They have given their time to do what the fiddle player symbolizes –  telling the story of this community’s commitment to giving each person the tools and resources they need to be able to reach their full potential.

In the center above and behind the figure for education, is an iconic view of the Ouachita River from The Bluff. Looking out from its edge are the explorers Hunter and Dunbar who were the first to map this region. In the background just below The Bluff, the rings of a giant tree (inspired by the Ross Foundation’s remarkable lobby) connect the story from dream to promise. Within those rings we see the confluence of the Caddo and Ouachita Rivers.

To the right and left of The Bluff, are panels with decorations inspired by designs on the old Arkadelphia High School. Within these panels will be included quotes from Arkadelphia’s great poet and humanitarian John Allen Adams. And at the very top center, an illuminated letter A for Arkadelphia is carried forward by doves of peace.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Arkadelphia - Searching for The Bluff

DeSoto Bluff, as it's known locally, is named for the famed Spanish explorer / conquistador even though evidence of his actually stepping foot there is hard to find. Much more likely is that members of the Caddo Tribe and the explorers Hunter and Dunbar took in the majestic view and surveyed the landscape from its peak. Nevertheless, the bluff which overlooks the Ouachita River valley is embedded in the story of this place and is one of the most picturesque sites in Arkadelphia. With an afternoon off, we decided to go find it, the only problem being that we didn't have any idea about how to get there.

The best clue we had was that Feaster Trail would soon be extended to connect with the Bluff. We knew where Feaster Trail was so we followed it to its end and then began our search. After almost giving up, I spotted what appeared to be an overgrown path leading into the Kudzu draped woods. Why not. We took the path up and up along a steep embankment while being devoured by hungry mosquitos.

It was so steep at one point that an  improvised climbing rope tied to a tree had been placed to assist novices like us. Eventually we reached a plateau and saw ahead of us an opening in the trees...the Bluff, we thought... Almost.

Feeling victorious we made our way home, but not before Ashley suggested we try the one other lead to the Bluff we'd heard about. This one involved cutting down a barely noticeable dirt road just south of the Carmart. The gate was open so in we went (thank you for all-wheel drive).
   When we reached the end of the road and saw the iconic view of the river below us and the Ouachita mountains spreading out across the horizon, it became clear that the bluff we had climbed to earlier wasn't The Bluff but just a clearing in the forest far below our current vantage point. Here, was the beloved place of many a local painter and high school sweetheart. Mission accomplished.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Arkadelphia - The Design Team

At the end of our community meetings we asked people, who 1) had a strong interest in further participation and 2) could commit to attending up to five future meetings, to become part of our design team. Usually this process leads to a team of about 10-20 people.

It's their job to work with us muralists to do further research, develop a theme, and help shape the content of the mural design. It's hard work. In addition to having to reveal the source of your nickname in one of our regular go-arounds, the design team has to make difficult choices about not only what should go in the mural but the much larger amount of material that will be set aside for future projects.

Like sculptors, film editors, or poets who painstakingly carve away material in order to clarify their vision, sometimes images and ideas that seem perfect for the mural are edited out of the final design because they don't fit the larger story. Each of us are faced with either letting go of things we hoped would be included or seeing them folded into the composition in new ways.

Because people have to talk to each other and eventually compromise when they work in groups, our design workshops focus on collaborative strategies for developing mural ideas. Here in Arkadelphia, we did two projects. The first is what I call a 'word picture.' In groups of three, the design team developed one list of ideas and concepts,  and another list of things / people/ places / and stuff.

Next they worked to fit those written ideas into a rectangle on a large sheet of paper with proportions similar to our mural. The more important an idea was, the larger it would be written. And if something needed to be in more than one place in the mural, it would be written multiple times. In a very rudimentary way, this exercise gave everyone a chance to begin to design the mural as they envisioned it. It also made clear how difficult it is to compose and fit all of the things suggested into one image.

For the second workshop, I gave a short talk and slide presentation about visual metaphors especially ones we had encountered in our research. Among them were bridges, porches, and arches. Then I asked the groups to imagine and draw a metaphorical bridge for Arkadelphia with special  consideration for: 
What it is made of?
What it connects?
What's underneath?
Who built it and who or what uses it?
How much can it hold?
What threatens it?

After an hour or so, each group presented their bridge drawing to the rest of the design team, explaining their intent, where they felt they had succeeded, and what was still missing. The results were remarkable. Here are a couple.

After our third design team meeting, with a studio overflowing with drawings, photographs, and other research material,  it was time for us muralists to begin incorporating these ideas into a preliminary draft of the design.