Minds behind the murals

Sunday, August 8, 2004

They have become part of Cape Girardeau's landscape this summer, the painters of the Mississippi River Tales murals.

So far though, only the stories of the murals have been told, not those of the people painting them.

Here, then, is a look at this team of artists from Cape Girardeau and Chicago who have been spending their summer creating a piece of the city's history.

The artist in charge: The main artistic force behind the murals is Thomas Melvin of Chicago.

Melvin, 52, is originally from New York City and received his bachelor of fine arts degree from Bennington College, where he first started working on murals.

For awhile Melvin traveled -- or as he put it, "hoboed" -- around working as a sign painter until he landed in Chicago. That was 32 years ago, and he has called the city home ever since.

That was when Melvin started his own business, the Thomas Melvin Painting Studio, which specializes in large commercial pieces for businesses, hotels and malls.

He has also created pieces for museums, like the City Science Mural at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.

About two years ago, a fellow mural painter alerted Melvin to the Cape Girardeau mural project and soon Melvin and River Heritage Mural Association president Tim Blattner were in touch. It was only about a year ago that Melvin found out he had secured the job.

Then came meetings and visits with the committee set up to establish what was to go on the wall.

After the committee researched and decided on what themes the wall should express, Thomas came up with images based on those themes.

"I didn't make many changes," he said, but "the committee was very open to my impulses."

It took Melvin a year to come up with the designs and models for the 24 mural images.

He knew he wanted to create a mural that was not static and flat.

"I like to have the scenes be very active and personable," he said. "It makes it more personal if you see people working, see people moving."

He is also using bold colors and decided to put additional figures between the main murals to prevent the monotony of arch after arch.

"I'm trying to create a whole piece," he said. This whole piece is 1,200 feet long. It is space well used, according to Melvin.

"I think on one level it simply adds color to this concrete wall. It also adds another level of interest to this river area. Coming downtown, you can pass through the history of this city."

Assembling a crew

Melvin brought fellow Chicago artist Cameron Pfiffner along with him to Cape Girardeau to work on the mural project.

Melvin also brought his 21-year-old daughter, May Melvin, and her boyfriend, Ian Caldwell, as well as Chicago artist Gary Borremans, to work on the mural occasionally. May Melvin, who is taking a semester off from college, should be doing some more work on the mural in the future.

Pfiffner, 46, has known Melvin for at least 20 years, and the two artists have worked on many projects together.

"I'm basically the guy Tom calls when he needs help," Pfiffner said.

In addition to being an artist, Pfiffner is a musician who travels to Chicago every weekend to play saxophone with the band Sabertooth at the well-known Chicago jazz club The Green Mill. While in Cape Girardeau, Pfiffner has sat in with the Water Street Band at Port Cape and played shows at Camp Family Restaurant.

Local artist Craig Thomas, 42, was recruited by the River Heritage Mural Association's Tim Blattner about a year ago, and he in turn recruited fellow local artists Megan Thrower and Amanda Thornberry.

"I just thought they were good and would work well together," Thomas said.

Thomas said he remembers talking about a mural project with former Arts Council of Southeast Missouri director Daniel North six years ago, but nothing came of it until Thomas was asked to be a part of the Mississippi River Tales mural about two years ago, while the River Heritage Mural Association was still collecting money for the project.

Last winter, Thomas told fellow arts council co-op member Thrower and then Southeast Missouri State University student Thornberry about the mural project. Thrower graduated from the university with a bachelor of fine arts degree, and Thornberry will graduate in December with a graphic design major.

Each painter has assigned tasks. Melvin paints the landscapes and the animals, Pffifner the human figures and Thomas heads the crew that paints the stones.

"Everyone has very different painting styles," Melvin said. "You can isolate the different painting styles to certain parts of the mural."

The process

Work on the mural is ahead of schedule and has proceeded mostly without incident, but there have been annoyances and discomforts along the way.

"We've been really lucky with the bouts of cool weather," Thrower said. On the unlucky days when it has not been so cool, she said, being outside can be really uncomfortable.

Especially at midday when the shade disappears from where the painters are working.

"You're like a vampire, you stay in the shade as long as you can," Thomas said.

This is why they usually take their lunch break around 1 p.m., when the sun is at its peak. They arrive at the floodwall anywhere between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and usually work until the sun goes down.

The hot weather also makes it more difficult to work with the special silica-based paint that is made in Germany. This paint is specifically for concrete surfaces and will last longer than other paints.

Thornberry said that as the day gets warmer, the paint dries faster and has to be diluted to keep it smooth.

"It's like learning how to paint again," she said.

The feedback

While they hear the occasional rude remark from somebody driving down Water Street, the painters get mostly positive feedback from those passing the murals.

"People are really encouraging and excited and very curious," Thrower said.

Practically every day the painters answer questions or take time to talk with people about the murals.

Some questions they hear more than others. There are a lot of questions about the Carolina parakeets in the first mural. Thrower said some people refuse to believe that the birds, which are now extinct, used to be native to the area.

Quite a few questions are directed at the murals representing Missouri statehood, in which there is a whale, and the Louisiana Purchase, which features Napoleon in the bathtub. Some people mistake him for Caesar.

They also get the nit-picky people who have to point out what they see to be mistakes or problems, but there was also the person who bought them all ice cream from Port Cape.

All in all, the artists painting the mural get a sense that the community is happy with the way the mural is turning out.

"People seem to love them," Melvin said. "We get a lot of great comments, it's really nice."

Melvin and the rest of the painters will be hard at work on the Mississippi River Tales murals until September or October, when they expect their part of the project will be completed.


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