A hometown homage

Friday, August 12, 2005
Aaron Horrell worked on his mural in Chaffee for the town's centennial celebration.

CHAFFEE, Mo. -- The town of Chaffee knows that it owes its existence to the railroad. A century ago, Chaffee was formed out of a wheat field thanks largely to the Frisco railroad company's development of the area.

While Chaffee marks its centennial this year, local artist Aaron Horrell is paying homage to that railroad history with a downtown mural.

A steam locomotive from the height of the days of rail traffic stands as the work's centerpiece. Horrell used perspective to make the train seemingly come out of the wall, like the past rushing back to revisit this community while it celebrates its founding.

"Chaffee's a train town," Horrell said. "The tracks ran through here before there was even a city, if you can call it a city."

On the mural's eastern side is the roundhouse that once stood in Chaffee, a hub where trains once switched tracks and cars, bringing thousands of people and tons of goods through the city.

Horrell pointed in the direction of the place where the building once sat under the gaze of a forested ridge.

"It's an old grown-up field now," he said. "There's nothing there."

Chaffee residents and passers-by can see Horrell out in the summer heat nearly every morning and evening, sweating it out on a project he couldn't love more. He works until it gets so hot his acrylic mural paint dries too quickly to make painting practical and the sweat runs into his eyes.

When he takes his break around 9 or 10 a.m., his shirt is drenched in sweat.

But painting the mural is a point of pride for the Chaffee resident.

When the Centennial Committee, charged with coordinating the town's celebration, approached Horrell to do the mural, he "jumped for joy and said absolutely."

Centennial Committee president H.B. Rice said Horrell was the logical choice "He's our resident artistic genius," said Rice.

Horrell himself is humble, saying any number of local artists could have done the project.

Rice co-owns the building the mural is being painted on and has an insurance office across the street. He said he's enjoyed watching the mural's progress and that the work is a fitting tribute to the railroad town's past.

Chaffee teenager Alex Heeb has helped Horrell in the project, finding photographs of old Frisco trains and doing other research to help make an accurate depiction.

So far Horrell has done three days worth of work since the middle of July, and he's only halfway done on the 40-foot-by-10-foot work. At this point the artist has simply painted the shapes and textures of the images. Now comes the detailing, which has begun on the wheat field and sky on the mural's western end and the cowcatcher on the locomotive.

The field depicts Chaffee before its beginning, when the land was still farm ground. Horrell admits it may not look like the exact wheat field that was there before 1905, but he has taken steps to lend credibility to the depiction.

Horrell painted the field on the western end of the mural because that's where it lay from the perspective of the train tracks. And he made sure to add some green amidst the gold.

"I don't think they raised a bumper crop back then," said Horrell of an era before herbicides.

Over the wheat field lurk ominous clouds, dark and full of turbulence. Some trail what appear to be funnels -- a symbol of a twister that ripped through the town in 1957.

Horrell has created murals before, like one inside Jefferson Elementary School in Cape Girardeau with storybook characters. He has another to be painted soon at the visitor center in Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. He has also showed in art in many shows and won many prizes, such as the best of show prize in this year's Southeast Missouri Hospital Art for the Health of It exhibition.

But the centennial mural is his first outdoor project, which is a project he has longed to embark upon.

Horrell is an artist that hungers to paint. "I make it my priority," said Horrell. "When I get a chance to do artwork, I do it."

When he can get the chance to beautify his hometown, the desire is even greater.

"I'm trying to give the people of Chaffee something to appreciate that will jog their memory," Horrell said.

Popular opinion in the town seems to be with Horrell. Every day he gets honks and smile from motorists and pedestrians glad to see some decoration on the downtown wall. People also stop and talk to him about the project.

In Wednesday evening's dusky glow, Kathy and Jeff Thomason stopped by during a walk.

"It's beautiful," Kathy Thomason said of the mural. "It's a symbol for Chaffee because this place has always been known as a railroad town."

Jeff Thomason works for the Burlington-Northern Railroad. He's out working a lot as a welder for the company, but he likes to check the progress of the mural when he can. He likes what he sees, saying the mural "makes the town look a lot better."


335-6611, extension 182

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