Mural, Mural on the Wall
In Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee, that rarest of all political animals, a liberal Republican turned Independent, has been raising a little private money to beautify the state’s highways with murals by prominent local artists. Last May, a scene of the America’s Cup yacht race designed by North Providence native Anthony Russo was painted on the abutment of the bridge that carries the Wampanoag Trail over I-95. In November, a mural designed by Pawtucket resident Gretchen Dow Simpson was painted on a retaining wall along I-95 in Pawtucket.
I’ve been thinking about murals lately as I prepare an essay on public art for a forthcoming book on contemporary art in Maine. I’m interested in the Rhode Island murals – two more by illustrator David Macaulay are scheduled for later this year – both because I have personal connections – I lived in Pawtucket as a boy and my daughter Hannah lives in Providence – and because the RI murals represent an example of official recognition that art helps create a sense of place, that it can edify as well as beautify.
Gretchen Dow Simpson is best known as an artist who between 1974 and 1993 created 58 covers for The New Yorker back in the day when The New Yorker was still The New Yorker, the magazine with the highest standards of any mainstream American publication. Simpson’s art consists of clean, spare images of architectural elements that have the power to evoke very specific places, from Block Island to Vinalhaven, with an economy of means.
Simpson’s Pawtucket mural consists of repeated images of a window in an old mill on Cottage Street. It is a view looking from inside the mill, the light from outside falling upon a bench in the foreground. The mural was painted on the retaining wall by master muralist Johan Bjurman.
Johan Bjurman has painted several murals that make use of the tromp l’oeil device of creating the illusion of a surface peeling away to reveal a different scene beneath. That happens to be the trope of one of the murals I visited last week on a walking tour of public art and street art in Portland, Maine.
The peeling blueprint of the 48 Free Street mural has become a local landmark since it was painted in 1986 by Chris Denison, C. Michael Lewis, Toni Wolf, Josephine Mussomeli, Steven Priestly, and Bertelle Brookings.Denison, Priestley, Wolf, Chris Hayes, Karen Sarfaty and Scott Kern repainted it in 2002. The mural pretends to be a blueprint applied to the entire side of the building, the blueprint peeling back to reveal the actual building.
Murals everywhere tend to concern themselves with expressions of local pride and/or documentation of lost pasts.
Perhaps Portland’s best-known mural is the Tommy’s Park mural in the Old Port just a few blocks from the Free Street blueprint mural. Designed by Chris Denison, C. Michael Lewis and architect Winton Scott and painted in 1985 by Denison, Lewis, Toni Wolf, Josephine Mussomeli, Matt Blackwell, Greg Chesaux, Wesley Stevens, Don Thayer, Art Cross and Donna Bachle, the Tommy’s park mural recreates a façade of the old post office that once occupied the park space.
Up on Congress Square across from the Portland Museum of Art, a mural painted in 1997 and 2002 by Tony Taylor and Ken Tacka on the side of the old Eastland Hotel presented a bifurcated view of the way the corner of High and Congress looked in the 1920s and the 1950s. The Eastland mural itself, however, is now about to become history as renovations overtake it.
One of the most recent Portland murals is the 2008 Ocean Gateway Parking Garage mural by Elizabeth M. Burke and Rebecca Pease. Based on a c.1910 postcard view of Portland Harbor, the mural covers what would have been a huge blank wall with sepia tone images of sailing ships.
Nostalgia is the stuff of murals, whether Gretchen Dow Simpson imagining placid mill windows along a busy highway or Burke and Pease plastering a 19th century vista on a 21st century eyesore. To me one of the most unusual and successful murals around makes an even more surprising use of the romance of history.
The mural on the back wall of the Asylum night club in Portland uses the conceit of a “Greetings from PORTLAND” postcard but it was painted by a group of graffiti artists led by Mike Rich. Taggers with street names such as Learn, Nasty, Cemek and Ember each painted a separate letter in his own aerosol style. The result is street art with a reverence for the past.
Every city of any size sprouts murals and street art, whether sanctioned or not. Exploring your city for public acts of art can tell you a lot about where you are.