A! Magazine for the Arts

Ellen Elmes is seen here with her Coal Miner's Memorial in Richlands, Va.

Ellen Elmes is seen here with her Coal Miner's Memorial in Richlands, Va.

Ellen Elmes illustrates the region

June 25, 2014

Ellen Elmes became a mural painter almost inadvertently. A watercolorist and teacher, she and her husband, Don, were living in West Virginia, when she got her first mural assignment.

"I was on file as an artist in the Cultural Arts Division of the state," she says. "They sent out a call for artists to paint one of four murals in the Wheeling Civic Center, and I applied for it, never thinking I'd be chosen to do even one of them. When I got the job, I had no idea how to paint a mural, so first I had to research "how to' before I could even think about "what to' paint. I literally learned on the job."

Since that first mural, she has done 17 murals. "This includes indoor and outdoor murals in six different states with three being "community murals.'" A community mural is one where Elmes supervises, facilitates and creates a mural with community and student participants. They work with her from the design concept and drawings to the completed work.

"Two other murals were created with the help of children of elementary through middle school; another two as collaborations with other artists – one of these is in Scotland. The remaining 10 were created from start to finish on my own. My history mural themes have ranged from church, town/city and college histories to the history of coal mining, the history of medicine and even the comic book-style history of Pal's in Kingsport, Tenn."

Her current mural project is in Abingdon. It's located on Main Street, adjacent to a small park across the street from the post office.

"Susan Howard of Advance Abingdon called me a few winters back and said that the Town of Abingdon was interested in having a downtown outdoor mural painted about the town's history and would I be interested in the project. I began in late summer 2012 by asking through the media and Advance Abingdon's Web page for long-time residents of Abingdon, Abingdon historians or any "Abingdonian' with a good story to meet with me and share their perspectives on Abingdon's history and community.

"I was available for these informal talks over a six-week period and met with about 20 people, including Garrett Jackson, who was extremely knowledgeable about Abingdon's early history. I also did extensive research through the Historical Society of Washington County Virginia. Jane Oakes, Martha Keyes and Joella Barbour at the HSWCV were extremely helpful, as were their online picture archives. I read books, articles, journals, school and church histories, etc., and spent time taking pictures at interpretive events and demonstrations at the Muster Grounds, an Abingdon Log Cabin tour, Sinking Spring Cemetery self-guided tour, in the Barter Theatre archives, the William King Museum archives, with Emory & Henry's library archives, walking up and down Valley Street, Main Street, and the Kings Mountain School neighborhood, upstairs in the Tavern, etc., etc., etc. I researched my material from August to November of 2012."

Once the research was completed, the design phase began. Elmes tacked more than 30 manila folders on her studio walls. Each folder contained information on the different themes and segments she had determined should be included in the mural. As she developed her overall concept (which resulted in the title of the mural, "Celebration: A Social History of Abingdon"), she would take down the appropriate folder and sort out the pieces and their placement into what she says, "seemed like a giant puzzle, full of intrigue and challenge." The design phase took five months.

"I was given complete freedom on the design and the use of my own vision (formed by the collective perspectives of those who talked with me and through the written voices of those long gone, and through the photographs, pictures, poems, songs, etc., that I accumulated in my research). But I made an agreement with Advance Abingdon from the beginning that I would, when ready, present my design sketch to a representative group of Abingdon historians, artists and citizens, as well as, of course, the town council for their approval – at which time they were invited to suggest changes or additions or deletions, before approving a final design. I only had to make a few small additions.

"My overall concept is based on three major ideas: that Abingdon, especially in more modern times, has been a place of celebration...of history, cultural events, gardens, festivals, etc. ... thus, my use of six celebratory banner-like shapes blowing out in the winds of time and change, with each one containing imagery telling the generally chronological history of the town; and that Abingdon, since the 1700s, has been a crossroads, a junction of sorts, for travelers on The Great Road, on Native American pathways, as well as a home place for many early settlers at Black's Fort, and later, entrepreneurs in outlying areas such as the salt works industry in Saltville, and logging enterprises in Konnarock.

"In other words, people passing through and people choosing to stay from other places greatly influenced Abingdon's character and culture – thus, the background map that anchors the banner images at the top of the wall and puts them in the context of our broader region. The map incorporates modern "trailblazer' opportunities of Southwest Virginia by way of Abingdon as well, including The Crooked Road, "Round the Mountain, the Virginia Creeper Trail and the Appalachian Trail."

She began painting the mural in July 2013 and worked until November, when she quit for the winter months. She began painting again in mid-April of this year and hopes to be finished sometime in July.

"The weather can be frustrating when the rain comes and goes, and I have to figure out when to stop temporarily or pack up for the day. The heat hasn't been bad yet this spring, but on some scorching days last summer I had to work "upstairs' on the scaffolding in the cooler mornings, and "downstairs' in the afternoons, trying to keep my paint and body from becoming lethargic. But, like any other job, you get used to it. I actually come to the mural every day, still enthused and interested in each day's new subject matter and painting challenge – it's never boring."

While this may sound like a solitary endeavor, Elmes isn't always working alone on this mural.

"A few Abingdon artist friends have volunteered for a day or two to paint something on the map or to transfer images, including a teenager last fall who was interested in the experience. There have been three wonderful, generous artists who have helped for longer periods: Nadya Warthen-Gibson last fall painted several of the plant/flower/herbal segments in the banners; Steve Wolfsberger committed himself to doing the covered wagon and the wooly mammoth imagery on the map; and my dear husband, Don, has tirelessly transferred most of the enlarged sketch imagery to the wall by tracing off the outlines of enlarged sections backed by graphite paper."

Having to enlarge your sketch and trace the outlines onto a wall aren't the only differences from creating a more traditional piece, such as Elmes' watercolors.

"It's a whole other ballpark," Elmes says. "I think of my mural work as representational, explorative but based on factual research and collective stories – I try to give visual voice to shared perspectives. However, I think of my watercolor work as personal expression, my "soul paintings.'

"As far as surface and scale – brick walls are bumpy, bold and seemingly boundless, until I reach the right end. Everything must be conceived and executed to catch the eye of the drivers on the road as well as the pedestrian. This particular mural, being extremely detailed, with a lot of smaller images contained in the banners, is meant to catch the motorist's eye (by first noticing the waving banner shapes) and then induce them to park and view the mural on foot and up close.

"Also, of course, the surface of the wall must be cleaned and primed and sealed before the painting begins, and then sealed with varnish sealer and a U-V protectant to preserve the finished piece."

The mural is painted with Liquitex acrylics and will be sealed with Liquitex gloss varnish and sealer. The final skin applied is Liquitex "Soluvar" which protects it from ultra-violet rays, the "real enemy of outdoor paintings," says Elmes. "The weather has no effect on the sealed painting, as the paint and sealer become, actually, plastic when dry, but the Soluvar will keep the colors bright for up to five or so years. After that period, the town of Abingdon has agreed to maintain it every four to five years by cleaning the surface with mineral spirits, and then applying a fresh coat of Soluvar. If that maintenance is practiced, it should hold up like it is when finished indefinitely."

"When the mural is finished, I think the plan is to extend the park up to the mural wall of Gizmo's Brandywine Antiques shop (and Gizmo, the owner, has been a wonderful host and cheerleader to me, by the way), so there will probably be benches and written and auditory info for viewers to utilize while visiting the mural."

Elmes first came to the mountains when she was a college student at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College). She was a volunteer through a college program working on a recreation program with children in McDowell County, W.Va., in 1967 and 1968.

"I fell in love with the people and the mountains, so when my husband and I married in 1969, we first came to teach in McDowell, then worked as self-employed artists for 20 years," Elmes says. "In 1971 or 1972, we moved up to Bearwallow on Jewell Ridge (on the West Virginia/Virginia state line) and have lived there ever since. While still working as a practicing artist, I taught art full time for Southwest Virginia Community College from 1988 until 2007, when I retired from full-time teaching to focus more of my time on mural and watercolor painting, (before I get too old). I still teach as an adjunct professor some semesters, because I still love to engage with aspiring artists, but Don and I are back to being self-employed artists, and loving it.

"The wonder of it all, about which I feel so fortunate, is that I have been able to make a career as an artist (with my husband's support and encouragement) in a rural area that we so love, despite being hundreds of miles from major metropolitan areas, because of the support and genuine appreciation for the arts of my fellow citizens in Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee and Southern West Virginia – we are a happening place when it comes to culture and the arts."

- Holly and Jim Thomas build a mural piece by piece.