Chicago artist to begin Cape floodwall mural in fall

Tuesday, June 24, 2003


Chicago artist Thomas Melvin posed Monday in front a sketch which could become part of the mural to be painted on the downtown Cape Girardeau floodwall. By Sam Blackwell ~ Southeast Missourian

The day explorers Lewis and Clark arrived here on their way up the Mississippi River in 1803, Lewis and Cape Girardeau founder Don Louis Lorimier spent part of the day watching some of the locals race horses. Arriving in Cape Girardeau Monday in his trademark red hat, Chicago artist Thomas Melvin brought along a towering sketch of Lorimier reining in a sinewy horse at one of the races.

The sketch is preliminary and ultimately may not become part of the mural Melvin will begin painting downtown this fall. But there is no doubt that Melvin, who was here to meet members of the River Heritage Mural Association, has been hired to make the downtown floodwall in Cape Girardeau come alive.

24 panels

The Chicago artist has been commissioned to paint a mural that will cover the floodwall from 150 feet north of Broadway south to Independence Street. It will extend the entire 15-foot height of the wall. The mural will look like a rusticated stone wall with arches that will frame 24 panels with historical themes. The mural will be designed so that viewers think they are looking through the wall to the scenes.

The concept, devised by the mural association, has taken some getting used to, the artist said. "I'm still coming to terms with the frames."

Melvin expects to begin work this fall on panels depicting Lewis and Clark and the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge construction because the Corps of Discovery Bicentennial and completion of the bridge are imminent. The entire mural is projected to be finished by fall 2004.

The list of scenes to be included in the mural has not been finalized, but River Heritage Mural Association president Tim Blattner said the panels certainly will include Lewis and Clark, a 500 A.D. landscape, the Louisiana Purchase, Marquette and Joliet, Girardot's trading post, President Taft's visit by steamboat in 1909, the Trail of Tears, Civil War history, bridge construction and the steamboat Queens -- Delta, Mississippi and American in modern times.

But Blattner cautioned that the completed mural may look different from the one the association is contemplating now. "This at the very beginning of the design process," he said.

Cost not calculated yet

He declined to predict the cost of the project, saying the amount hasn't been calculated yet. Past estimates put the cost at $190,000 to $250,000. How the association will attempt to raise the money hasn't been determined, Blattner said.

The mural will be the most expensive the organization has commissioned. Previous murals have been financed in various ways. The Wall of Fame was supported by sponsorships, the Bicentennial mural by selling prints. The Downtown Merchants Association, businessman Chuck McGinty and the Riverfest organization paid for the Riverfest mural.

The association initially announced plans to commission a mural for the downtown floodwall in March 2000. A national search for muralists brought in 25 responses. Blattner said price and proximity were part of Melvin's appeal -- the other finalists were from the East Coast. But the association also liked Melvin's "personal commitment and interest in learning the history of Cape Girardeau," Blattner said.

Melvin has painted numerous pieces of public art, including a mural at a Chicago science museum and another in the food court at a Jacksonville, Fla., shopping mall. Most public art these days is being commissioned by shopping centers. He thinks it's a good idea. "It provides an escape from the commercialism," Melvin said.

He became a muralist because he enjoys creating public art more than studio art.

"I like the give and take of a site and a client," said Melvin, who owns the Thomas Melvin Painting Studio in Chicago.

He expects to use historical photographs only as sources of information and will not replicate them in the mural. "What I see too often is just reproductions of photographs," he said. "We want to become a new piece of the town's history."

To hire local artists

He will use a silica-based paint made to use on masonry. It reflects light and is easily durable for more than 25 years, he said. Melvin said he will hire some "local talent" to help with the work.

A native of New York City, Melvin had a varied background before settling on mural painting as a line of work about 20 years ago. His list of jobs include gandy dancer, a worker in a section gang, for a railroad in Montana. He also was a theatrical scene painter, which stemmed from his study of visual and performance art as a student at Bennington College in Vermont.

While murals have become almost a fad as a way for towns to distinguish themselves, he said, they should not be slapped onto walls willy-nilly. "It's almost as bad as a billboard smack dab" in the middle of a landscape, he said.

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