It seemed to take forever to get started. For several months I saw the blank expanse of a huge retaining wall along DeKalb Avenue in Atlanta’s Lake Claire neighborhood from the MARTA. Sometime in 2004 a small sign appeared on the wall. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the gist of it was that someone was going to paint a mural there. The wall got a fresh coat of whitewash that year and the sign returned.
Sometime in the fall of 2005, I noticed grid marks on the wall. Was something finally happening? In early 2006, there was a sign asking for volunteers. My painting experience had been confined to walls at home, but perhaps I could tote paint, supply encouragement and run errands. I called Kathy Evans, the coordinator and mastermind of the mural. She had managed to finagle a grant from the City of Atlanta and persuade David Fichter, a Cambridge, Mass., muralist, to fly down and help. David has been in Atlanta before; some of his murals, including one at Little Five Points and another at the International Friends Association (Quakers) building in downtown Atlanta are city landmarks in their own right.
“Native Waters” celebrates life along the Eastern Continental Divide, which runs along DeKalb Avenue. Georgia rivers and streams that flow to the north and west of the divide eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico; those that flow to the south and east end up in the Atlantic Ocean.
While talking with Kathy, she mentioned that they were still marking off the grid, but it was slow going with only one chalk line marker. I said, “I think I have one of those. Let me check and get back to you.” I checked and I did. It was my first contribution to the mural.
Because of my work schedule, I could only commit to painting on weekends, every other month, but the volunteers soon began painting. I could see their work from the train; once the trees leafed out it was tricky.
I reported for painting duty in the spring of 2006. I still have a box at home marked “Mural Clothes,” full of old jeans, tees, a pair of shoes, gloves, a bandana. Kathy introduced me to David Fichter. He was dressed in white, paint-spattered overalls. His first words to me were, “Are you afraid of heights?” I muttered something to the effect that I wasn’t that nimble on a ladder, but OK on scaffolding. I first painted the solid color areas against which the mural would be drawn. I quickly graduated to the yellow feathers on the Prothonotary Warbler, so-named because of its bright yellow-gold feathers. Another positive sign was that I got a palette to mix my own paint and colors.
A couple of weeks later I joined Margaret Kavanaugh, an RN at Grady, painting a railroad trestle over a lake. We were “high” on her scaffolding. She had painted a lovely snake near the bottom of the mural and painstakingly outlined its every scale. My “lasting” contribution was to add eyelashes to a fierce lavender alligator in a swamp. The eyelashes lasted through the winter, but disappeared once the alligator gained its proper green-brown color in 2007.
Plans were made for the dedication of the mural on Earth Day, April 22, 2007. Painting and volunteers came from everywhere. Cyclists along DeKalb Avenue often stopped and later returned to help. Some friends with a long stopover at Hartsfield-Jackson arrived by surprise, brought lunch and stayed to paint for about an hour or so. One evening a young woman and her companion stopped by to offer help. David asked, “Are you afraid of heights?” “Not at all,” came the reply. Her father was a roofer, and she’d spent most of her life at the top of tall ladders.
The days before the dedication were busy. Last minute touches were being done on the mural. Dirga Dirsi, one of the best letterers in Atlanta, was putting the final touches on the labeling and creating information panels that would stand at the Eastern end of the mural. Contacts were made with the Atlanta Police Department to close off the entire block of DeKalb Avenue for the dedication – the first time EVER that an entire block had been closed for art in Atlanta.
A colorful 340-foot mural is impressive. The area was spruced up. The Seed and Feed Marching Abominable Band was ready. The day was one of the most beautiful spring days in Atlanta imaginable – warm (not hot), sunny, a light breeze. Following music, introductions and speeches, David Fichter was presented with a paint-spattered tuxedo jacket to wear for “special occasions.” The street celebration ended with an Earth Day celebration at the Lake Clair Community Land Trust.
The mural has endured a couple of acts of vandalism that have been taken care of and is a glowing tribute to what can be accomplished by a group of volunteers led by visionaries like Kathy Evans and David Fichter.
You can read more about the mural and see pictures of its painting at http://www.lakeclaire.org/ Scroll to the bottom of the page for photos and other links.
Information about David Fichter: http://www.davidfichter.net/