Back to the Wall
For scale, one of the artist crews posed along the 1,500-foot mural.
Restoring the Van Buren Historical Mural
It is the largest work of art in this region, possibly even in Arkansas, measuring about 1,500 feet in length and ranging from 10 to 14 feet high. It took five years and several dozen artists to design and paint it. It’s large enough to be visible in Google Earth satellite photos. But it was begun more than 30 years ago and now has suffered weather damage and outlived the lifespan of its paint. In many places, it is flaking away.
This enormous mural of Van Buren history was painted on a concrete flood wall along the Arkansas River by sunburned high school students over hot, humid summers from 1981-85.
To paint, they climbed ladders or hung from scaffolding; scooted along the ground or stood on truck tailgates. The artists smashed scorpions, evaded poisonous snakes, even fell and fractured a few bones. But they stuck with it. Their epic work of art was celebrated and supported by their hometown in the 1980s and the experience was unforgettable.
You would think that would be satisfaction enough. But it isn’t. Some of them, now adults, are back at the wall – painting it all over again.
“We spent a lot of time painting the history of Van Buren and our country,” said Sheri Hart, one of the original artists. “But now the wall has become history.” Since early 2012, a small group of people who once helped create the massive mural has resolved they won’t let it fade away.
“It held up the way it was supposed to,”?Hart pointed out. “But it is just regular old house paint –?latex. A few years ago it started peeling badly.”
“Each year I’d tell the students, ‘Twenty years from now, you’ll bring your children here to see this,’” recalled Tonia Holleman, the Van Buren High School art teacher who directed the project through the ’80s. “But it has been 33 years. I really never thought it could last this long.”
Holleman, now retired, directs all credit for the restoration to her former students, volunteer Sheila Bell and city officials who are finding funds to support the project. She also protests jokingly that she won’t ever be back down by the river with today’s crew, working in the sun.
“I have the little skin cancers all over my face and arms to show for it – I won’t be painting!” she declared. But she was the driving force for the original mural’s creation, in response to former Mayor Gene Bell’s request that art students create something there, where the city wanted to create a park. In fact, Holleman wrote and published a handbook at the end of the project to teach others how to accomplish the creation of a giant mural.
Vividly, she can describe the wilderness conditions that greeted the first crew of students. There was no opening in the flood wall the first year and when they trekked over to the river side, “no bathrooms, no running water, nothing but weeds and snakes. The wall was covered with poison ivy.”
In order to make the concrete surface paintable, she and students chiseled, caulked and sanded. The fire department helped at times by pressure-washing the wall with firehoses. It had to be painted with several coats of primer and even then it was a rough surface.
Tackling the biggest canvas they’d ever painted
Life-sized preliminary drawings for the mural, divided into individual panels that were each drawn by different artists, had taken place months before in Holleman’s art class. Historical subjects and how to render them visually had been suggested and debated, sketched and revised.
When painting began, figures emerged colorfully: dinosaurs, deer, wolves, birds of prey, bison and beaver. Soon, accurately painted 19th-century Main Street buildings, historic homes, railroad bridges, steam trains and early automobiles came to life. Landmarks such as the Crawford County Courthouse and portraits of notable people appeared. In time, all the newspapers of Van Buren were rendered – with headlines. Van Buren High School was painted along with its band marching to the foreground.
At times, the wall had to be misted with water to cool it down enough to allow the paint to be brushable. The crews started very early in the morning and stopped when the heat became unbearable. They got tough, could climb like monkeys and balance like cats. Looking back at their ’80s fashion and hairstyles in old pictures, the kids look like a paint-speckled cast of “The Breakfast Club.”
After the arduous first summer, Holleman told the mayor, whose support was unwavering, that she wouldn’t bring students back to the same conditions, but would have to wait for the city to bring more facilities to the planned park. That summer, she took a real vacation instead.
“I don’t know what all went on,” she recalled of their year away from the wall. “But the Corps of Engineers allowed a gate to be opened through the floodwall. Suddenly we had bathrooms and pavement.” A wooden fence was also constructed that came to be the their much-used observation post.
“Some days, after I’d go home just worn out and dirty, I’d wait until about dark and go down one more time just to look at how we were doing and think about what to do next,” Holleman recalled. “I’d look down along the fence and there would be some of the kids, sitting and thinking, too.
Getting by with a little help from their friends
The city steadily improved the new riverside park, today named Mike Meyers Park. Back to the mural Holleman’s students went, painting each summer through 1985, on some 1,500 running feet of wall.
The town cheered for the artists in many ways. The Sportsman Ice plant provided ice, daily. Various supporters brought drinks, cookies, watermelon or lunches. Other kids cruised through the new floodgate, encouraging and visiting with the artists. KISR?radio would warn the painters, over the air, that rain was approaching. A local contractor provided a locking trailer for their supplies. One artist’s father, a welder, designed custom hanging scaffolds for the kids that were easier to move along the mural. Often when the crews arrived in early morning’s darkness, they found a city police car shining headlights to light their path to the wall.
“One day a man drove up in a pickup and started unloading soft drinks and ice chests,” Holleman recalled. “The cans said ‘Sam’s Soda’ and we had never seen any. It was Sam Walton.”
The Walmart founder asked if they needed anything else and then returned with more donated supplies, she said. Just another day on the wall.
One painting was to be a montage of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age, also showing all the military service medals. Today, a student could use a smart phone to look up pictures of any service medal, without even leaving the scaffolding. Not so in the 1980s, children. The artist could not find a detailed picture of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“At that time, the only Medal of Honor recipient we knew of in Arkansas was Footsie Britt, who had been lieutenant governor. I?had the artist call and ask if she could come to Little Rock and take a photograph of it for the design,” Holleman said. “He said, ‘No. I’ll bring it to you.’”
When Lt. Gov. Britt came to the wall, he asked which student would be painting the medal. Holleman indicated Alice Douglas. “He handed to Alice and told her to keep it as long as she needed it,” Holleman said.
The “medals”?panel was the first chosen to be restored in 2012 and a ceremony unveiling it also honored veterans last year on Memorial Day.
The art of remembering
The student artists remember these and other extraordinary gestures and the immense pride they took in painting the original mural.
“It’s brought a lot of us back together,” Hart said. “And we feel exactly the same as we did then.”?Hart is now a professional commercial artist whose work is licensed and mass-produced. One place you may see it is on a line of garden flags sold at Lowe’s.
“We would sit on the fence together every afternoon and critique our work,” Hart recalled. “I find myself still doing that with my own art.”
Three decades later, Hart specifically remembers making certain brushstrokes on scenes she painted back then.
“When I was 16 or 17, I painted like a student,” she said. “It’s been a pleasure to improve on a few things.”
Using hundreds of slides and photographs provided by Holleman, the artists volunteering now have a visual reference to what has chipped or peeled away. Some places only need light touches of repair and others, quite a bit. Some of the work is tricky, as the artists try to blend in a seamless repair, matching the color and shading of the original.
“Paint has definitely changed,” Hart noted. “These days the pigments are different – we kind of battle it now. But it does have UV?protection, so that’s good.” The finished work is also sealed after drying.
Christy Horne Jones, who was in the wall crew of 1985, was working on a panel representing present-day Main Street at the time a terrible vehicle accident caused a fire that leveled a half-block of historic buildings.
Tragically, several people were killed. The mural reflects the accident in that her paintings of the intact buildings preserve their history.
Jones admits she’s still a bit unhappy with the perspective in her segment of the wall (what artist is ever completely satisfied?). But she is extremely proud of having contributed to the mural.
“When you’re hanging on a wall and sitting on a 2x4, perspective is really hard,”?she laughed, forgiving her teenaged self a little. But as her teacher predicted, she did grow up to show it to her children.
“My daughters know which part I did,”?she said.
Jones also was one of the first people to climb up on the floodwall to look over from the other side during a flood in 1986, anxious that the high water would wash away all their paintings.
During that flood, the City of Van Buren even put up extra barriers to try to protect the newly completed mural. In other words, they put a second set of flood barriers in front of their main floodwall! Water did reach the mural and the visible mudline rose – but not much damage was done to the art.
During the three decades since the flood, Holleman finds it remarkable that only time and weather have caused deterioration – the mural has never been significantly vandalized.
“I really think it is because students painted it,” she mused. Holleman believes that if it had been commercially painted, or created by adults, it might have been defaced. There’s an integrity to the work that has, so far, stayed any impulse to harm it.
Secrets of the Mural
Holleman was thunderously stern about the historical accuracy of the paintings when the wall was created. But when a group of teenagers are the artists, a few tiny pranks have to be expected.
“They got a couple over on me,” she admitted. Hart and Jones, now safely grown up, can point out a few of them.
In a forest scene, a mischievous artist added a few Ewok characters from “Star Wars,” hiding among the trees. That was Guy Harrelson, one of two original artists who are no longer living.
There is a line drawing of a bird that somehow was never painted in. Another scene has an owl who accidentally has only one eye. Peeking out from behind a log, a war-painted Indian hunter lurks with a spear. Good luck finding them – they got past an eagle-eyed art teacher.
There are also many tributes and historical documentations in the art. Each summer’s artists have their names listed. When Holleman was named one of six outstanding art teachers in the nation, her students painted it in as a headline on “The Courier” 1984 newspaper panel.
Back to the brushes
A number of the original artists rallied in 2012 to restore peeling panels. This year, Hart and Jones said erratic spring weather has been frustrating. It is much harder for adults to find time to work as a group. But Hart, Jones and a new volunteer, Fred McFeeters (and his grandson), show up together some days and work alone on others. The artists use a Facebook page named “The Wall Mural Restoration Project” to coordinate work and may be joined by more former artists as more of “the originals” connect with the project. It is filled with Holleman’s pictures from the 1980s and news clippings.
“When we look at it as a whole, it is overwhelming,” Hart admitted. “But a little bit here and there ... .” For sentimental and artistic reasons, they hope more artists return to repaint their own artwork. But even when they restore the work of others, Hart said, “It’s still our hands touching the wall.”
– Lynn Wasson
To learn more: The Facebook page The Wall Mural Restoration Project was the source for images from the 1980s. These images are used courtesy of Tonia Holleman, who had the original project documented in photos and video. Many more pictures are available there.