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Mural artists take public project literally

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some of the artists painting murals along Kanawha Boulevard are putting the public in the city's latest public art project -- literally.

Stop by, strike up a conversation. If you're lucky, your image might get permanently sealed on one of the 10 piers holding up Interstate 64 as it crosses the Kanawha River towards Fort Hill.

Charly Hamilton is a likely prospect. He's already promised to make fellow artist Jeff Pierson the first baseman in his Power Park panorama. But there are plenty of open spots available among the bleacher bums.

Hamilton and Pierson are among a trio of artists who also painted piers along Washington Street last summer in the first Peer to Pier mural project. Organizers from the city's Strong Neighborhoods Task Force hope to make it an annual event, or at least until all the piers between Washington Street and the Boulevard get painted.

As of last week, some artists had nearly finished their mural, while others had yet to begin.

Hamilton was transferring his design to the cylindrical pier using a grid system with the help of his wife, Rhoda. He had to stretch his original square painting to fit the 10- by 12-foot format of the pillar, so the infield diamond looks more like a tilted rectangle. He figures passing motorists won't notice the difference.

He's also willing to work around local impediments. When another mural artist, Ian Bode, told him he'd been tagged by a passing pigeon, Hamilton decided to paint a pigeon -- and some pigeon droppings -- at the top of a storm drainpipe that runs beside his pier.

At the opposite end of the row of piers, Spencer artist Rodney Harper was smearing bright green blotches on the front of his mural while his helpers, Steven Martin and Ronald Brown. He hoped to finish by the end of the week; he needed to get back to his tattoo shop, Horror Ink.

Harper said he decided to enter the mural competition several months ago after reading about the project in the Gazette.

"Being from Spencer we don't know Charleston," he said. "As kids, we would come on field trips down here, 'cause Charleston was the big city. It is the big city. We picked things [for our mural] that we remembered. It's to show a picture of Charleston from outside the area, Charleston as a whole."

The mural is dominated a large sternwheeler, steaming beneath the South Side Bridge toward the Capitol. Banners at top and bottom read "Charleston, W.Va." and "Heart of West Virginia."

Although he's run his tattoo shop for a dozen years or more, Harper's an old hand at murals. "We've done several around the Spencer area. I've been doing murals, sign painting since the late '90s. Then I got into tattoos. This is what actually paid for my tattooing. It's kind of like getting back to my roots."

While in Charleston, Harper camped out at Kanawha State Forest. "It's like a little vacation, even with all the traffic and noise. It's weird how you get used to it after awhile."

He used a variety of media -- house paint, acrylic and spray paint. "I think Ian [Bode, another mural artist] told us we were the first to use spray paint. We're going to use an airbrush to cut in white waves. When it's done it will look kind of like a tattoo -- a lot of contrasting colors, contrasty lines.

Harper may have gotten used to the constant traffic overhead, but he had a complaint about the holes in his concrete "canvas."

"We got kinda shafted. Those [piers] are pretty smooth. We got some plaster filler but ran out. It's hard to pull a straight line because of all the holes."

Janet Ripper Chambers had other concerns. Daughter of Huntington wildlife artist Chuck Ripper, the watercolorist is learning a new technique on the fly. "This is all latex acrylic," she said. "I'm adapting."

Because the wind and heat dried her paint so fast, she asked a friend to help lay down the background of her Kanawha River fish mural. "He would roll and I would feather behind him."

Chambers has been tracking her hours carefully -- a couple of eight-hours days, one four-hour -- but wouldn't estimate how long it will take to finish.

"The end of August," she said, citing the official deadline. "As long as it takes. Because it's a public display, I want to make sure it's perfect."

Bode seems to be taking things more casually. He's doing his second pier mural, and while he and painting partner Dave Thomas have a basic design, he's leaving some things open to chance.

They started with blocks of color, light on one side, dark on the other.

"It'll be day and night. It's called 'City on the Wake,'" he said, a play on words. "The dark blue will be night, the light blue day. People going east will get the night, people going west will get the day. It's kind of post-modern, cubist."

He showed where he'd been experimenting with splattered paint on the back of the pier. "The night ... we're going to get a little Jackson Pollacky, spatter some colors to get kind of a Hubble space telescope effect."

He's also set aside a small section where he hopes to get other mural artists to add their personal touches, as long as they're in the spirit of the overall design.

Money for the murals this year comes from two sources. FestivALL organizers donated $10,000 of grant money from the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation; Peer to Pier is one of FestivALL's public art initiatives. The city of Charleston kicked in another $13,000.

The project, which was scheduled to start June 1, was delayed for nearly three weeks because of safety and logistical issues. A contractor working on the I-64 bridge had to move a fence that encloses its staging area near the piers. And several artists raised safety concerns.

"There were a couple of piers very close to traffic," said Allen Copley, director of the city's traffic engineering department. "We did a shoulder closure. It consists of advance warning signs and reflective orange cones." The cones carve out an extra six feet between the curb and traffic at both ends of the project.

Copley admits he wasn't totally sold on the murals.

"When I first heard of that, I wasn't sure I'd like it. But it's pretty neat. It's better than a plain concrete column."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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