In the fifth grade, I drew a picture of St. Joseph, Sister Rosanna’s patron saint, on her blackboard. She liked it so much, she gave me a box of colored chalk and asked me to draw some more.

Before the week’s end, I had covered all but one of the black boards with a long, full-color mural of Jesus, Mary and the 12 apostles. They all looked like my brothers.

When I was 20-something, and home from New York for a summer’s chance to make some money, my sister Eileen, a portrait painter and sometime muralist, asked me to help her finish a mural at a local restaurant.

Eileen, a gifted painter who died too young, was, at the time, using a wheelchair, and her hands were partially crippled with arthritis. Still, she managed to continue painting.

Eileen, a gifted painter who died too young, was, at the time, using a wheelchair, and her hands were partially crippled with arthritis. Still, she managed to continue painting.

She taught me the groundwork, the proper preparation of the surface, the use of the paints and brushes. She was my hero.

In New York in the ’50s, I was allowed to sleep on the floor of my girlfriend’s apartment. A struggling actor at the time and a night student at the famous Art Student’s League on 57th Street in Manhattan, I had a lot of time on my hands. She, who later became my mentor, had an inviting blank beige wall. I decided to change it.

Armed with watercolors and a series of San Francisco snapshots of the work of the great Chinese American painter Dong Kingman, I gifted my girlfriend with a beautiful mural. It may still be there. Check it out.

In Hollywood in the ’70s when my daughters were young, our small flat, owned by a friend, boasted a grand, pale green kitchen wall. He asked that I not put nail holes in it, but otherwise, “put anything there you like.” I did.

I painted a huge mural of a fairy land, with a giant tree, elves, frogs, fairies and woodsy creatures. My daughters remember it with fondness.

My oldest, who inherited my passion for murals, carried on the tradition. While at Colby College, she worked part-time at a local gift shop. She persuaded the owner to let her do a mural of a tropical rain forest. It was magnificent. One day, the owner tired of it and painted over it.

The art of painting on walls is a long one and dotted with great moments, from the caves of Lascaux in southern France to those in Altamira Cave, in Spain. The history of the world is spelled out in great murals. The list of muralists is stunning, from da Vinci and Michelangelo, to Goya and Diego Rivera, one of the greatest painters of all time.

There’s a story. In 1932, Diego, a social realist and Communist devotee, was asked by Nelson Rockefeller to paint a huge mural in Rockefeller Center’s RCA building. Rivera included in the work a giant May Day parade of workers marching in demonstration, with a large head of Russia’s Lenin in the foreground.

Rockefeller objected. Rivera suggested adding Lincoln to calm the waters. No deal. The work was stopped, and in 1934, Rockefeller, an American business icon, ordered the mural destroyed. Rivera used his money to create a mural for the Independent Labor Institute that still featured Lenin. Everyone but Lenin passed into history, content.

Today, here in central Maine, a large mural depicting the history of Maine’s Lebanese community stands proudly beside Main Street in Waterville. Along with the French, the Lebanese immigrants were warriors in the American labor movement.

I remember one hot August day in Los Angeles, watching a Mexican father showing his children a magnificent mural depicting an image of the Caesar Chavez, painted on a crumbling brick wall. It had apparently been painted by a talented local teenaged graffiti artist. The wall would soon come down, but hundreds of passersby would enjoy it every day until it did. Today, murals of Chavez and the Latino labor movement are found throughout California.

 

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