The murals of the story

By Glenda Winders  //  Photography by Richmond/Wayne County Convention & Tourism Bureau
Richmond’s art tells many tales

In many ways Richmond is a lot like other midsize communities in Indiana. It boasts a grand Romanesque courthouse, a revitalized downtown, a historic railroad station and a lively past peopled with Native Americans, early settlers and explorers.

But take one drive around town and through the Historic Depot District and you’ll know right away that in other ways, this is a very different place. Vibrantly colored murals depicting subjects both serious and whimsical decorate the inside and outside of buildings large and small, busy and abandoned. One is a life-size train, another depicts the depot itself. Some honor the city’s history as “The Cradle of Recorded Jazz,” where the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Hoagy Carmichael recorded in Fred Gennett’s studio along with Gene Autry and Lawrence Welk. Others recall Richmond’s importance as the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. Soldiers huddle together on the front of the American Legion building. Groucho Marx adorns one side of a tobacco shop with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart on the other, all smoking, of course.

“What I love most is how the murals bring Richmond and Wayne County’s storied past to life in a beautiful way,” says Nancy Sartain, leisure marketing director at the Richmond-Wayne County Convention and Tourism Bureau. “The murals make people smile and give the community a sense of pride. Plus, a few of the murals are great selfie spots!”

Charles Newcomb is credited with painting the first mural in the county at the Hagerstown Museum in 1913. The indoor mural is not currently available for viewing, but the one that appeared in 1941, “Pride of Cambridge City” by Samuel F. Hershey, still greets visitors to the Cambridge City post office. Featuring the area’s famous Single G racehorse, it came about as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal that offered work to unemployed artists. The project was administered by the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture, which evaluated artists’ proposals for site-specific pieces.

Over the years, more murals of all kinds appeared. More than 75 now decorate the city, with new ones constantly being added and old ones being restored. Visitors can take in the Murals Trail, which helped land Richmond national recognition from the Paint Quality Institute as one of America’s Prettiest Painted Places, via a self-guided tour. The trail is free and open year-round.
One of the most prolific artists represented is Pamela Bliss.

“Much of my work there is important historically because it documented a lot of the history of various subjects, such as jazz, the train depot and Single G,” she says. “It was personally important as I developed my skills and began my career with those murals.”

Bliss pioneered a mural festival in Richmond in the ’90s, with artists coming from as far away as Italy to take part in the juried competition. Since then her work has taken her far beyond her hometown to paint murals in other cities. She was also one of the 100 artists selected to make the film “Loving Vincent,” the animated life story of Vincent van Gogh rendered in his style of painting. But she frequently returns home to create and repair murals.

“Murals and public art have a ripple effect in many areas,” Bliss says. “Artwork enhances communities and tends to create attitudes of appreciation and pride. So others tend to want to take better care of their surroundings and sometimes add more art. It can help generate economy, bringing viewers to the area, and it can be a great educational tool.”

Bliss’ work also turns up in Cambridge City, her hometown. Her mural on a wall there recalls President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train stopping en route to Springfield, Illinois, to pick up Lincoln’s friend, Gen. Solomon Meredith, and across the street Meredith stars in a mural of his own. Bliss’ daughter, artist Carly Mattingly, worked with her mother on other murals and created her own; Mattingly’s piece illustrates how the Whitewater Canal once came through town.

Some murals serve to draw people into businesses, such as at the Firehouse BBQ and Blues. “The Rescue,” by Richmond native Amy Rheinhardt, was executed on the outside wall of the historic firehouse. It features a fiery scene: Smoke pours from the painted windows, and people inside wait to be rescued. Someone has tossed a cat from a window, and it tumbles in midair, above five painted firemen poised on the ground with a net. Rheinhardt left spaces among the figures where visitors can pose for those selfies. A fire engine waits in the background. Inside the restaurant, the walls and stage are adorned with more images of a building on fire as well as portraits of famous blues musicians, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson.

“Stuck on Richmond,” by Chicago artist Damon Reed, depicts musician Lonnie Johnson stepping out of a 1930s postcard and welcomes customers to Ullery’s Homemade Ice Cream. A sunburst over a cup of coffee identifies 5th Street Coffee & Bagels, and a painter’s palette greets people coming to the Paint the Towne art studio. A photographic mural of the owners of Legends Southside Bar and Grill, in operation since 1858, adorns their building.

One of most innovative ways the murals decorate Richmond is in making derelict structures virtually come to life. In two large ground-floor windows of one such building people appear to be having coffee in an upscale restaurant. At another, lifelike horses Tom, Frank and Will Henry watch the world go by from their stalls. Some spaces in the empty building behind the Firehouse restaurant are painted to depict curtained windows and colorful doors. One contains the portrait of a musician, another an elegant peacock. A third shows a woman with her hair in curlers and a rolling pin in her hand opening the door to a man holding a bottle behind his back.

Murals also enhance the city by covering up unsightly structures. A Model T repair shop across the street from the Model T Museum is painted to look like a private home, complete with a child and a balloon out front. Other parts of the building look to be showrooms for the Starr Piano Co. and Wright’s Bicycle Shop. A Model T on the end of the building is the only clue to what goes on inside. Students at Richmond High School, where art is a high priority in the curriculum, decorated an underpass.

Sartain says many visitors pair looking at the murals with exploring the city’s Chocolate Trail, which involves picking up a passport at the Old National Road Welcome Center and then stopping at ice cream, candy and doughnut shops for free samples. Others find the murals induce a hankering for more art, triggering a visit to the Richmond Art Museum, which has an excellent collection for a city of its size, as well as changing exhibits.

“Putting art into public spaces is of vital importance,” says Lance Crow, education director at the museum. “It’s a very important way to keep art in the public eye. It shows that the community values art and serves to further beautify our city. The murals are kind of like having billboards for the arts.”