Mural pluralism: Silverton’s public art remains vivid thanks to volunteers

August 2019 Posted in Other

Babs and Vince Till have been advocates for Silverton’s murals since 1993. Brenna Wiegand

By Brenna Wiegand

Silverton’s beautifully done and scrupulously maintained murals are drawing attention, both at home and abroad.

For the first time, Silverton Mural Society is exhibiting at the Silverton Fine Arts Festival Aug. 17-18.

“It is really nice of them to invite us,” Vince Till, mural society vice president said. “We’re going to set up some brick and concrete blocks and [muralist] Tonya Smithburg will demonstrate painting
on rough surfaces, which will be very interesting.”

He and Babs joined the Mural Society in 1993 when they moved to town from their log cabin and 40-acre farm on Crooked Finger Road. He plunged himself into the mural project, serving as president from 1996 through 2012 and vice president most of the other years. Babs was secretary for several years.

The Mural Society got its start in 1992 when Patti Geddes of Silverton, on a trip with husband George, was inspired by the beautiful murals in Chemainus, British Columbia, now totaling at least 54. Since then, Silverton Mural Society has produced 30 murals of its own and publishes a self-guided tour.

At its outset the Mural Society decided to only allow murals depicting Silverton history and culture or pivotal events in U.S. history. They hoped to inject Silverton’s business community with new life by attracting to town visitors that otherwise might pass it by on their way to such destinations as Silver Falls State Park and The Oregon Garden. After all, it had worked in Chemainus.

“It took two years for them to convince the politicians and the people that run the town to go for it,” Till said, “and when they finally did, they were able to revitalize the town.

“Silverton was in the same boat back then and by going ahead with this we gradually built it back and it’s now a growing part of people coming to see things in town.”

Visitors will see, in pictorial form, the evolution of a rough-and-tumble, turn-of-the-century logging town into the Silverton, Oregon of today.

Between these walls they’ll meet Silverton’s heroes and other well-loved citizens and get a sense of its unique history, values and traditions. Between them, eight local artists are responsible for the 30 works of art scattered around town.

The mural project’s success rides on the quality of its product – and very few towns have 26-year-old murals that look as good as the day the paint dried.

“Over the past 26 years we’ve learned what it takes to do the maintenance; what works and what doesn’t,” Till said.

The 20-year air force veteran said his job was doing whatever needed to be done to get the job done. Till’s likeness, ever-present blue overalls and all, appears in the “Veterans Poem” mural painted
by the late Larry Kassell.

“I was able to gather other people in and pointed the direction we were going,” he said.

Silverton is the only muraled city in Oregon with an organized maintenance program.

“These murals run between $5,000 and $10,000 apiece now,” Till said. “When other towns want to talk to us about murals, I tell them not to even think about it if they’re not going to take care of them. If you put up five or ten and walk away, you might as well stand on the roof of that building and throw the money out for the people to pick up.”

Even with a team of hardworking volunteers, the cost of maintaining the 30 murals runs $10,000 to $12,000 a year, a cost in which the city shares.

After a mural is completed, it is inspected daily for damage and signs of wear that, if not addressed immediately, could run into the thousands later.

“When we inspect them, we see things that others don’t,” Till said.

They wash the murals every year and apply a new UV coat every two to four years, depending on their orientation to the weather.

They hire artists to touch up the murals about every other year, a task that is an art unto itself.

David McDonald painted Silverton’s first mural, Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms,” on the side of the old Masonic Lodge on Main Street. It was unveiled July 4, 1994 with great fanfare.

“We had the Oregon State Defense Force Band from Salem and a parade that lasted at least 40 minutes,” Till said. “About a third of the town was there.”

It so happened that the event coincided with the US Postal Service’s issuance of 50-cent stamps of the Four Freedoms and postal service workers arranged a special “Rockwell Station” at the celebration where people could get a special “Silverton Oregon: A Rockwell Kind of Town” cancellation on their letters. With only 600 issued, these letters have become collector’s items.

Therefore, when the old Masonic Lodge was torn down in 2015, there was no question that it would live again. People and organizations stepped up to complete the $50,000-estimated project, saving about $8,000 in the process. Painted by Silverton artist Tonya Smithburg as four self-standing murals on the side of Ratchet Brewing’s Silverton location at 990 N First St., it is the largest Four Freedoms in the world.

“We have flowers that need to be taken care of, scaffolding to move, products to sell and general maintenance like pulling weeds and picking up trash around the murals so they’re sharp without having a mess in front of them,” Till said. “We can use all the help we can get.”

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