Work in Progress: Checking in on the Council for the Arts’ courthouse mural project

CHAMBERSBURG – “The hardest thing is to paint over someone else’s work,” explains Andrea Finch, creative coordinator with the Council for the Arts. “Because it’s done in layers, you have to paint over someone else’s work.”

Finch is seated at a table at the back of the gallery, and she is describing the challenges facing the two dozen-ish artists contributing to the Council for the Arts’ (103 N. Main St., “the corner of King Main” says Finch, as there isn’t a “101 N. Main St.”) courthouse mural project.

“You can do part of it, but it’s not your panel. Everybody’s working on it,” she says.

It’s “Fido’s First Friday” in downtown Chambersburg. The heat from the afternoon is giving way to a pleasantly warm evening, and Main Street is abuzz with dogs and their humans eager to take in the sights and smells. In a nearby parking lot, runners are gathering under tents to register for the annual Run Against Poverty, which is held on the first Friday in June each year.

Inside the Council for the Arts, not one, but two separate mural projects are underway.

Along one wall, Barbara Randall, vice president of the council’s board, is encouraging a group of children to express themselves creatively on a banner that reads “Freedom and justice for all.” Technically, anyone can participate, but the adults are, for the most part, hanging back, content to let the kids take the lead. The finished banner will be unveiled at Racial Reconciliation’s Juneteenth celebration, which will be held on June 18 at various locations around Chambersburg.

On the other side of the room, visitors can watch as artists bring the massive courthouse mural project closer to completion.

Five large panels hang in various states of done-ness, each surrounded by dozens of reference sketches and photographs that were submitted by the Franklin County Photography Club. A row of folding tables covered with painting supplies and what appears to be someone’s takeout run down the middle of the room forming the only barrier between the audience and the art. The yet-to-be-completed scenes feature forests, farms, a covered bridge and a creek.

When assembled, these works will comprise phase one of the courthouse mural project, and they will cover a space 20 feet high and seven feet wide. Phase two will feature Franklin County’s namesake, Ben Franklin, and it will coincide with the return of his statue, currently on display in the Heritage Center, to the courthouse’s atrium.

Finch explains that the project originated with former executive director, Tarryne West, who developed and pushed the original proposal.

“We didn’t know, totally, what they wanted,” says Finch of the awkward preliminary conversations between the council and the courthouse. “They didn’t know, totally, what could be done.”

The commissioners did, however, know from the start that the project should be a collaborative effort including artists from across the county. It was to be a community production for community consumption.

Thematically speaking, community collaboration is a slam dunk. Artistically, it poses both challenges and opportunities. It is a rare chance for artists to experiment in a public forum while becoming a part of Franklin County history, but it also prohibits any single artist from taking credit.

An unexpected bonus, however, is that it allows artists to play to their own strengths and pass off areas where they lack confidence to other artists.

“I do my fair share of landscapes, but my love is wildlife art,” says painter Mike Leighton, who is taking a break to survey his painting-in-progress. “That’s why they dragged me here – for the animals.”

Also on hand is fellow painter Aretha Williams who painted the forest backdrop where Leighton’s deer will live. Neither artist played any part in the original design that they are contributing to.

“Three [panels] were started, and there were two blank canvases,” says Williams, who specializes in portraits. “I just had to look at the photos and decide which one I felt most comfortable painting. I only did the background on this one.”

Neither artist knows who will add the next layer to their work, but they know that one of the final layers to be added will be leaves. Leaves will be used as a motif throughout the mural to tie the panels together visually and thematically.

“I haven’t worked on anything this large before, so that was a little bit of a challenge,” says Leighton. “They had the sketch, but we were given some freedom, a little bit of flexibility to do what we thought worked best. We’ll see if we made the right choices or not.”

This phase of the mural project will be finished by the end of June to make space for the next exhibit, “Architecturally Designed: The Places We Live, Work and Play,” which opens on July 8.

[Main image caption: Artist Mike Leighton adds a deer to part of the Council for the Arts’ courthouse mural project on Friday, June 3.]

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