Sunday, October 30, 2011

Urban Renewal

The fifth and final mural of the St. Louis Block murals is now complete, as of last week. I wasn't sure if I would succeed in a race against the winter weather, but fate was kind and I worked hard.

The final mural is called "Urban Renewal, 1973-1977" and is painted in the same style and mostly monochromatic palette used for the "Memory Wall."

The source photo used as the departure point for the painting was a historic photo of the old T.O.K. Garage at the end of South Main, about where the Lewis and Clark Public Library is now (source here, along with a discussion of the demolition for Urban Renewal).

The background of the stained concrete was integrated into the painting, with some areas left sketchy and some fully rendered and detailed, to reflect the idea of erasure, disappearance, and memory.

Finally, the series of five murals, each mural with its own title, also has a single umbrella title for the murals, "Palimpsest." This unifies all of the murals on the St. Louis Block. And the information about the sponsors was painted on as well, on the lower left side.

What does "Palimpsest" mean? As I wrote on the wall of this last mural:

A surface on which something was written,
then erased,
then reused to write something new,
leaving faint, incomplete traces of the old.

The Helena "Palimpsest" Mural Series, St. Louis Block, Last Chance Gulch:

1. "Dragon Gate"
2. "Memory Wall: The Historic Chinese Community of Helena"
3. "Sometimes I Feel Like Chinese Takeout"
4. "Dorothy's Room"
5. "Urban Renewal, 1973-1977"

Re-painting Dorothy's Room

Well, unfortunately the sign peeled from the wall, even though adhesive was used as well as two coats of polyurethane over that. The employees at the Windbag during one of their breaks watched it slowly peel away. Maybe it was the temperature, or the uneven nature of the concrete, but it was agreed that there was no point in trying to reapply it if it peeled even when new.

So instead, four headlines were picked from regional newspapers when Dorothy's closed, and I painted those instead. Only the headlines were used. I sure didn't want to paint every single word in the articles themselves! And the weather was starting now to drop into below freezing temperatures.

One idea had been to paint Dorothy's portrait on the left side. There are photos in the Windbag that some believe to be Dorothy. But after further research at the Montana Historical Society, a letter from 2006 was found, from Dorothy's niece to the Society, which denied those photos were of her aunt. The niece said Dorothy did not like photos of her and did not allow them to be taken. Only the one from her high school yearbook photo in the 1920s and her booking photo are of Dorothy.

So who is that other woman in the photos in the Windbag cases at the back of the room? It may very well be Dorothy's predecessor, Ida, of Ida's Rooms. Ida is the one who sold the business to Dorothy in the late 1950s (ca. 1956-57).

Monday, October 3, 2011

Painting the Mural: "Dorothy's Room"

A lot of people think that "Big Dorothy" operated her bordello in the Windbag. But it was really upstairs, above the Windbag, with the entrance in the rear at 19 1/2. A lot also apparently think, based in part on the Windbag's "Old West" graphics, that it was back in the 1800s that the place was a bordello. But the building, the St. Louis block, was built as a drygoods store back in 1882. And it wasn't until 1927 during the Prohibition that Ida ran her bordello called "Ida's Rooms" in the building. And it wasn't until the late 1950s that Dorothy bought the business and renamed it "Dorothy's Rooms," which was closed down in 1973.

My painting shows the infamous round red bed at Dorothy's, based on a photo from "Helena As She Was" ( I simplified it, added the ashtray with burning cigarette, and tweaked the colors to be more lurid looking, inspired by Van Gogh's "The Night Café." He said: "I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. ...In my picture of the Night Café I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime." Notice not only the burning cigarette (and everyone smoked in those days) but the marks on the bed like someone was just sitting or reclining there. It is called "Dorothy's Room" (singular) rather than Dorothy's Rooms. The houseplant is a dracaena marginata, or "dragon tree," not "palm trees" as some speculated, and was in the original photo. It is an interesting coincidence that this "dragon tree" thus links with the Dragon Wall!

Above is a replica-enlargement of a 1973 article in the Walla Walla, Washington newspaper on the closing of the establishment and the death of Dorothy soon after. It was printed out by Signs Now in downtown Helena and applied with adhesive. I decided to make the article very big, to look like a crime novel in a way, and although some might find the fact that the article has a missing section annoying, it also reminds us that we really never know the full story about anything.