TERRE HAUTE —
Cities aren’t like faces.
People long to stroll into their high school reunion and hear old classmates gush, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
Yet, if a traveler returns to a city after a long absence and says, “This place hasn’t changed a bit,” that community is probably dying. The better reaction would be, “Wow, I can’t believe they pulled that off here.”
Nowadays, downtown Terre Haute falls in the latter category, thank goodness. A visitor who last stopped in town a few decades ago could sense a strong pulse in the heart of the city today. Neglect still lingers in spots, but its acceptance is diminishing. And, the cultural and economic lifeblood of Terre Haute, from the city’s founding nearly two centuries ago, is no longer ignored; the 2013 Year of the River celebration is reacquainting Hauteans with their greatest natural resource — the Wabash.
A mural under way on the east side is wonderfully unconventional for Terre Haute.
It will be big — 96 feet wide and two stories tall, covering the west exterior wall of the Cox, Zwerner, Gambill and Sullivan Law Firm building at 511 Wabash Ave. Its imagery will turn heads, showing a bridge over the river, with scenes of historic moments displayed in three panels separated by the bridge piers. One depicts the devastating 1913 flood. The middle panel, the largest, features an idyllic Wabash on a perfect fishing day. The dry beach from last year’s drought — the worst on record — occupies the third panel.
The power, impact and value of the waterway will be evident.
The lives it touches will be represented, too. People ride canoes through the three river eras, from folks paddling through the floodwaters on the left, to recreational anglers in the center, to a family carrying their canoe over drought-scorched sand on the right. An eagle, a massive catfish and a bug-eyed frog oversee the activity. A map, subtle and in the background, charts the Wabash from Ohio to Illinois. Lettering on the bridge spells out The Year of the River, and 2013.
The painting will connect the dots in the community’s past, present and future as only art can do. Think of it — a mural of the Wabash River on Wabash Avenue. And, that’s the idea, to think of it — the river, the town, the people, the wildlife, then, now and beyond.
Artists Mike Neary and Amy MacLennan, a husband-and-wife team, drew the concept from the Year of the River theme. They view that phrase in a broader, more challenging way, though. “What it really means is, ‘The Year to Start Thinking About the River,’” Neary said, with speckles of paint and raindrops on his T-shirt, pants and ballcap, waiting out a cloudburst in the cab of their art supplies truck at the mural site on Wednesday.
For the mural organizers, that thinking intensified last fall as community arts groups began preparing Year of the River activities. The Wabash mural is funded through Indiana State University’s Energize Downtown initiative, and is the latest facet of the ongoing Gilbert Wilson Memorial Mural Project. Wilson, a WPA-era artist, created dramatic murals that dominate the interior walls of Woodrow Wilson Middle School, the Community Theatre, and the ISU Bayh College of Education. The memorial series of public artwork honoring Gilbert includes local murals at the Booker T. Washington Center, Boys and Girls Club, and the Terre Haute Children’s Museum.
“This is the biggest project we’ve had yet,” said Nancy Nichols-Pethick, who leads the Gilbert Memorial series with fellow ISU art faculty member Brad Venable.
Nichols-Pethick, an artist herself, and her ISU students are painting alongside Neary and MacLennan. All came to this city in different ways, just as most Hauteans do. Nichols-Pethick was born in Alaska and raised in Maine, and began teaching at ISU in 2003. MacLennan grew up in West Terre Haute and graduated from West Vigo High School and ISU. “I’m a country girl,” MacLennan said. She and Neary moved to St. Louis a few years ago, where she teaches art at nearby McKendree University. “We still kind of consider ourselves Hauteans,” MacLennan said.
A job as a billboard painter originally brought Neary — born in Bloomington, and raised in Maryland, New Orleans and a few other cities as his dad’s job with Boeing Aircraft kept the family moving — to Terre Haute in the early 1990s. His first impression was revealing.
“I said, ‘Wow, this town could really use a good coat of paint,’” Neary recalled, with a laugh. “It was kind of gray, but had great buildings.”
Besides his commercial billboards, including a caricature of basketball great Larry Bird, Neary began adding color to the insides of those buildings. His angular paintings enliven rooms in The Verve nightclub, The Coffee Grounds and Java Haute shops, Rose-Hulman and downtown art galleries. It was the demolition of the old Terre Haute House and construction of its replacement, the Terre Haute House/Hilton Garden Inn, in 2005 and ’06, though, that gave many Hauteans their first look at the man behind the art. Neary set up his easel downtown and painted images as the buildings fell and rose. Passers-by peeked over his shoulder.
Onlookers won’t have to peek during the next five weeks as Neary and MacLennan, along with Nichols-Pethick’s students, create the massive mural.
It will catch eyes. Rivers have always drawn MacLennan’s attention. As a youngster, she gazed at the water levels of the Wabash as her family drove over the Dreiser and Dresser bridges. She does the same thing now as she drives over the Mississippi River bridge from St. Louis to McKendree every day. “I always think of how it will affect people, that there’s life down there,” MacLennan said.
She wants the artwork to capture that fascination, and share it.
One of the assisting art students, Katerina King, came to ISU from Carmel. Now a 20-year-old senior, King got her first close look at the Wabash last month when the river levels rose into Fairbanks Park and she snapped a few photos. Eventually, she’ll move back to Carmel, in hopes of opening her own gallery. She’ll likely return to Terre Haute for a visit, and to check out the mural.
“It’s cool, because we get to make our mark on Terre Haute before we graduate, and come back and say, ‘I was part of that,’” King said.
And, if all goes well, she’ll find a few new surprises, too. The city will have changed, again, for the better.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.