Big Statement Art
The stories behind murals around the Midlands
Photography Courtesy of Jerry Emanuel
They’re massive. They’re colorful. They’re exciting. But even though you’ve probably seen Columbia’s most beautiful works of art, you may not know the stories behind them.
William Edward Johnson, known as the artist Blue Sky, painted a huge mural on the side of the AgFirst Farm Credit Bank he calls “Tunnelvision” 36 years ago. “The idea for ‘Tunnelvision’ came in a dream,” he says. “I woke up early in the morning and just sketched it out.” He already had the perfect spot chosen but needed the approval of the South Carolina Arts Commission and the Federal Land Bank, which owned the building. When the Land Bank gave its approval, it was on the condition that if in one year they didn’t like it, Blue Sky would paint it over. Obviously everyone was happy with the outcome of the project, and “Tunnelvision” is now one of Columbia’s defining landmarks.
Ralph Waldrop also has done several murals around town, one of which is passed by thousands of motorists each day. Formally called “Capital City Times” but more commonly known as “The Black Mural,” it is painted on both supports of the North Main Street railroad trestle at the entrance to Earlewood Park. Ralph had help with the mural from artist Vanessa Ashford-Bussy, and the foundation of African-American artist Romare Bearden provided support.
Judi Battiste coordinated the mural with 24 Alcorn Middle School students. Originally, it was supposed to be painted only on one wall, but by the time it was completed in 1995 it was so large it had spread to both walls of the trestle.
“One side shows the kids’ feelings about growing up in Columbia. The other side is a tribute to African-American role models,” says Judi, who at the time was chair of the arts committee for the local chapter of The Links, Inc., a national women’s service organization.
Among the role models featured in the mural are the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., South Carolina native astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died when the Space Shuttle “Challenger” exploded in 1986, and Columbia native Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden, former astronaut and current administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
"The Black Mural"
At Crayton Middle School, located off Trenholm on Clemson Road, Blue Sky painted “Wall Grabbers” on the outside brick wall of the school’s library. “Our son’s school had a parking problem,” he says, “so I created a mural of an overflow parking lot with six additional spaces all numbered in sequence with the real parking spaces.” He volunteered for two months painting the mural, which features a Volkswagen that belonged to him and a BMW and Suzuki belonging to friends. When the school was demolished and renovated, the construction company saved the wall, and it still exists today as a free-standing work of art.
At the corner of Harden and Devine streets is Harper’s Restaurant, whose northeast wall features a Blue Sky painting of Five Points circa 1948. The 14- by 60-foot mural was completed in 1991.
To promote the animal shelter, Blue Sky created a tableau of a cat and dog asking passersby to adopt them. This 20-foot high painting and sculpture sits at the entrance of the City of Columbia Animal Shelter just off Shop Road near I-77.
The lunch crowd at Monterrey’s Mexican Restaurant on Park Street has a great view of the huge murals on the side of the Research Planning building nearby. Completed in 1999 by muralist Eric Lake, “Generations” depicts allegorical symbols of Columbia past and present: Discovery (Indians discover John Lawson’s party in the 1700s. Lawson was a naturalist and surveyor of the Carolinas); Government (Columbia becomes the capital in 1786); Civil War (The effects of the war intensified in 1865); Industry (an 1893 mill becomes the world’s first electric mill); and Agriculture (the importance of agriculture).
Another of Eric Lake’s contributions to wall art in Columbia is in the Vista at 700 Gervais Street. “Vista Station” was impressive as just an outline in black when it was first being drawn. After it was colored in, it became spectacular in its scope and size. Painted on two walls of the building, the murals of trains and their sidecars present a seemingly uninterrupted flow of beauty, strength and power.
Columbia isn’t the only area where murals exist. On the corner of Main Street and Church Street in Lexington is a mural of the Roof-Harmon House, circa 1883. It was painted by Ralph Waldrop and Billy Love in 2004.
According to writing on the mural, the home was a post-antebellum Italiante Victorian residence built for the Pickens-Roof family by a Mr. Smithdeal. The home was a social mecca for generations. In 1998, it was purchased from Mr. & Mrs. Harry O. Harmon, Jr., by St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church and moved from its original site.
Works of art are all around us, sometimes on our own street corners. We’ve just got to take that extra moment to look and marvel at the beauty that graces the buildings in South Carolina’s capital city and surrounding areas.