Painting is first of 14 to trace city’s history

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 15, 2002

Mural artist Robert Dafford speaks Friday during the unveiling of the mural at City Front. (The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[04/13/02]Vicksburg’s new mural of a bustling riverfront scene is the “first building block” of a revitalized City Front area, Mayor Laurence Leyens said at its unveiling ceremony Friday afternoon.

The 20-foot-by-12-foot painting, based on photographs of Vicksburg’s riverfront from around 1907, was painted by Louisiana artist Robert Dafford and his staff. It was the brainchild of Nellie Caldwell, who got the idea from seeing similar floodwall murals on visits to Paducah, Ky., and started the Vicksburg Riverfront Mural Project.

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The mayor presented Caldwell the key to the city for her leadership.

“We will have 14 different designs,” Caldwell said of the planned series of historical murals depicting Vicksburg beginning in 1700.

The $15,000 mural was funded by Ergon, Inc., whose chief executive officer, Les Lampton Sr., helped with the unveiling. “We’ve always felt Warren County is the largest investment in our entire operation,” Lampton said.

About 150 people attended the public ceremony, where refreshments were served by ladies and children in historical dress. Dr. Lewis Lassiter sang “Ole Man River” and additional music was provided by a Jackson barbershop quartet.

Caldwell contacted Dafford about the painting, and the city invited him here for an October seminar. Dafford and his staff began work on the mural in late March.

“In a few years you’re going to see lots and lots of tourists in this area,” Dafford said.

The mural shows Vicksburg when it was the largest city in the state, with a population of 20,000, Vicksburg Riverfront Mural Project historian Nancy Bell said. “Thirty steamboats, including the Belle of the Bends, were home-ported at Vicksburg’s waterfront,” Bell said. Daily arrivals and departures of 22 passenger and freight trains at the Levee Street railroad station added to the activity in the mural area, Bell said.

The scene is bordered by painted-on “pierced” columns, of which Vicksburg had more than any other place in the country, Bell said. Plans are for all 14 panels in the timeline to be bordered by differently designed pierced columns, Bell said.

Dafford said he and his staff of five do not all work on the painting at the same time. First, they prepare the surface. “We let the preparation cure for 30 days before we start painting,” Dafford said. “Then several of us come back and transfer the rough layout, by either scale measurements, projection or freehand drawing. We block it in with a rough, simple, flat color to see the whole composition.”

The three main artists, Dafford, Benny Graeff and Herb Roe, then “do a second pass to complete the painting and develop the windows, the boats, the doors, all the details,” Dafford said. Then members of the crew finish by applying a washable, durable urethane sealer to the mural.

“We’ve done about 250 murals, mainly along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers,” Dafford said. “We like historical projects associated with downtown revitalizations.”

“This is the most extraordinary painting I’ve ever seen,” David Sanders of Vicksburg said. “I would love to see the rest covered with paintings like this. This tells Vicksburg’s story. It’s like a photograph, it’s so crisp.”

Lights and a sponsor-identifying plaque will soon be installed at the base of the mural, Caldwell said. She and the mural board are seeking sponsors for the other 13 panels, also at $15,000 each.

“It’s nice to see the private sector underwrite public programs,” Leyens said.

The Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the 1959 flood wall that the mural was painted on.

“This wall really only serves its purpose a few times a decade,” District Commander Col. Frederick L. Clapp said. “It’s nice to see something on it that will serve its purpose every day.”