October 2006 Issue
Mural, Mural on the Wall
Thanks to a Portsmouth couple who enlisted fellow citizens in a remarkable effort, the Portsmouth floodwall murals -- 2,200 feet of art and history -- have boosted tourism and civic pride.
Ugly as a mud fence. In lots of places, that just about sums up ugly. But the good people of Portsmouth, Ohio, who faced a 20-foot-high floodwall of gray concrete for more than 40 years, could teach us all a thing or two about ugly.
Just keep the Ohio River out, citizens said. They'd lived through the '37 flood and were glad to see the big gray monstrosity, a third of a mile long, rise between them and the water.
No one questioned the aesthetics of utility - that is, no one until Portsmouth natives Dr. Louis R. and Ava Chaboudy took a long look at the long wall. In 1992, Ava, a AAA tour planner from Portsmouth, led a motorcoach group to see the new murals in Steubenville. Louis rode along, and after everyone oohed and aahed over a gargantuan Dean Martin on the side of a building, he and Ava came home dejected yet curiously inspired.
"He looked at our old, dingy floodwall," Ava recalls of her late husband, a longtime Portsmouth obstetrician and gynecologist, "and said 'Why can't we do something like that here?' We were so excited we didn't sleep that night."
Steubenville and Portsmouth were both old industrial powerhouses down on their luck, and Steubenville had jumpstarted its future with images of its past. Could Portsmouth do the same?
All they needed were some old photos, and local historian Carl Ackerman had nearly 10,000 shots from the 19th and 20th centuries. Plus a painter who could tackle concrete and create a little economic miracle.
They searched North America for just the artist and found internationally known muralist Robert Dafford. Fourteen years later, the result is the Portsmouth floodwall murals, the world's largest known work by a single artist.
After their epiphany in 1992, the Chaboudys led a 10-year crusade to cover the concrete expanse with Portsmouth's glory days, from the first Indian settlement to the millennium. "Two thousand years of history, 2,000 feet of art," the city crows about its 54 murals, and Dafford's paintbrushes never dry.
Having worked on wall murals in France, Belgium, England and Canada, Dafford began researching and painting the floodwall in 1993. He thought he might be done, except for inspections and touch-ups, when the 52 murals were dedicated in 2002.
But no. Portsmouth had more epic stories to tell, this time immortalizing its baseball heroes on a tangent to the main wall. Now, Branch Rickey, Al Oliver and Rocky Nelson are enshrined, "and Don Gullett goes on this year," says Bob Morton, president of the nonprofit Portsmouth Murals, Inc.
The school board has hired Dafford to paint murals in several new schools, and he's working on the new $1.3 million Portsmouth Convention and Visitors Bureau and Welcome Center. Ava and Louis R. Chaboudy, who died in 2003, were honored at the August dedication, with, of course, a mural of their own.
The floodwall project has gained its own momentum since the Chaboudys took a vanful of Portsmouth's worthies to see the Steubenville murals. "Tourism dollars have increased in the past few years, and I think it's the murals," says Brenda Marth, director of the Portsmouth Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Even more amazing to Marth is a recent poll of high school students, conducted by the Southern Ohio Museum. "They were asked, 'What is Portsmouth's greatest asset?' Every one of them said the murals. They're teenagers - we didn't even think they noticed them."
The scenes that percolated up through the city's history now seem to be permeating its revitalized sense of identity. "We used to have shoe factories and railroads, and this was a good place to live," Chaboudy recalls. "Foreign markets stopped all of our business, and there was a cloud over the city. Everybody went someplace else, and the children left.
"We heard 'Why in the world would you want to come to Portsmouth?' We wanted that to stop, and the murals did [it]."
Chaboudy envisioned giant scenes that would "unravel time just as it happened. History had been put on the back burner, but the murals have stimulated interest in it."
On the new Welcome Center exterior, one wall will be the old railroad station, which Dafford sketched just before it was razed. The entrance wall will capture a bit of scenic byway that runs the length of the Ohio River. And the east wall? "We have a half dozen ideas for that," Morton says.
Portsmouth Murals, Inc. has the luxury of the late Carl Ackerman's photographic archives, slices of riverside life nearly since the dawn of photography. Ackerman was instrumental in the original committee, and is immortalized in his own mural.
Dafford studies those photos and his own sources. "I work with local historians to select the important items in their history," he says in his studio in an old brick railroad warehouse along the tracks in Lafayette, Louisiana. "I've done so many Ohio River murals that I have a whole collection of riverboats."
As proof, he steps back from a steamboat scene he's painting for a hotel lobby in Vicksburg, Miss. "I've done thousands of miles of the Ohio River, with hundreds of small cities in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio that are renovating their historic districts."
Since 1992, Portsmouth has become one of the stars of the movement, re-imagining its riverfront and the giant wall that holds the Ohio in her banks. The Army Corps of Engineers worked 10 years to complete the behemoth, built to withstand a 77.1-foot flood stage.
Assuring the Corps that the project would involve only paint, no nails, the committee was on its way. With one small oversight.
"We had everything in place, but forgot we didn't have any money - not a cent to our name," Chaboudy recalls. "So we raised the first $5,000 from the volunteers who went to Steubenville in the van."
The committee threw cocktail parties, packed picnics and tried everything to raise money. "At first, the mural idea went over with a dull thud," Morton says. "People thought we were crazy."
But the visionaries persevered, going after grants and approaching the community. They examined murals across Canada and America, choosing Dafford exclusively. His murals range from $5,000 to $10,000; the Portsmouth average is $10,000.
When the late Vern Riffe, speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, locked in $115,000 from the state, the committee could commission four murals a year.
"Our total now is about $700,000," Chaboudy says, "and that's a lot of money."
Yet no contribution was too small; Portsmouth schoolchildren donated pennies, nickels and dimes. At stake were naming rights for the popular black cat that Dafford painted into the Early Boneyfiddle mural (Boneyfiddle is a Portsmouth historic district). Second-graders at Woodrow Wilson Elementary gave $1,300 and loyally named the cat "Woodrow."
Woodrow is so popular that "visitors rub the cat's head," Chaboudy says.
Although every inch of floodwall has been painted, Portsmouth residents still have stories to tell. Is there any person or place that's eluded Chaboudy?
"Kathleen Battle [the internationally known soprano] is from Portsmouth, and we tried every way we could to get her cooperation. We tried hard, but we couldn't hold up the painting."
No one, not even one of the world's great divas, can stop Ava Chaboudy, Portsmouth Murals, Inc., or Robert Dafford's flying paintbrushes.
Probably prouder of the monumental work than anyone, Chaboudy still keeps her eye on the prize. "We learned from Steubenville, if you're in bankruptcy, this is the way to get out."
The artist and civic leaders choos their favorite murals.
With "Two thousand years of history, 2,000 feet of art," as Portsmouth boasts, it's hard to pick favorites from the 54 murals, but a few of the floodwall effort's principals reveal their choices.
- Muralist Robert Dafford's favorites are chronologically the first two, Mound Builders and Shawnee Village. Mound Builders depicts two horseshoe mounds from 600 to 1000 AD, one part of which is preserved in Portsmouth's Mound Park. "The mounds are incredibly complex," Dafford said in his studio in Lafayette, Louisiana.
- Portsmouth 1903 is the favorite of Bob Morton, president of Portsmouth Murals, Inc. "It's the first one we did, a panoramic view of Portsmouth from the Kentucky side, a century after it was platted." The mural is a composite of four photos from the Carl Ackerman historical photo collection and, at 80 feet wide, the broadest on the floodwall. It was dedicated in May 1993, and positive response helped to propel the project.
- Portsmouth Motorcycle Club is the favorite of Brenda Marth, director of the Portsmouth Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I don't ride motorcycles, but I have this on my business card." Bikes with shiny chrome line up on either side of the frame, with a large horizontal inset of the 1913 Portsmouth Motorcycle Club at top.
- Chillicothe Street glows as a trompe l'oeil night scene from the 1940s. It's tops with Ava Chaboudy, a project founder. "It looks like it goes with you as you walk along - it's uncanny. People take pictures of each other in front of it because it looks like a real street."
But for Chaboudy, still active in the mural ambassador program, each scene is spectacular. "Front Street is a lively place to be. It's unbelievable, when you think it was such a dead, nothing place before we began."
Vote for your favorite Portsmouth Floodwall Mural at www.portsmouthmurals.com. So far, Portsmouth Motorcycle Club is in first place, followed by Chillicothe Street and Twilight.
Click here to check out some of the murals