Professional artists David Boatwright and Michael Kuffel have been working in chilly breezes and hoping for more warm, sunny days as they paint “The Fabulous Fifty” mural into reality on the wall of 48 East Main Street facing Statesboro City Hall.
Boatwright and Kuffel hail from Charleston, South Carolina. Each also does his own fine-art paintings on a smaller scale, but they have been working together on big projects for more than a decade. Their murals grace walls around Charleston at festive locations such as Mira Winery’s tasting room and the Palmetto Brewing Co. A year ago they painted a mural highlighting the 130-year history of Gretsch Drums on the musical instrument company’s factory in Ridgeland.
But roughly 21 feet high and 46 feet long, the mural commissioned by the Bulloch County Historical Society ranks among the largest these artists have painted.
“It always kind of amazes me when I look back on something that large and realize at some point it was all painted with, you know, an average-size brush about this big,” Boatwright said, holding his thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart.
“The Fabulous Fifty of 1906” is also the title of a freestanding marker the Historical Society placed several years ago near the starting point of the Willie McTell Trail, a little farther east on East Main. The marker describes how a delegation of 50 men from Bulloch County traveled to Savannah for a Dec. 1, 1906, bid session hosted by Gov. Joseph M. Terrell to determine which community would become home to First District Agricultural and Mechanical School.
With “December 2, 1906,” as another working title, the mural will depict the return of the delegation by train to Statesboro and a crowd who came to greet them and celebrate Statesboro’s selection. Of course, nobody in that crowd really knew that the First District A&M would grow through other identities to become Georgia Southern University.
Boatwright’s small-scale rendering, copies of which were shown to City Council last fall, placed the locomotive and passenger cars in a straight line with the crowd and a background of trees in the space between train and depot.
In the full-size painting that has begun to emerge on the wall, the train curves more. That may not be the way the rails lay exactly, but the arching line of the train centers a viewer’s gaze toward the people in the crowd.
“However solid the plan we start off with, there’s always some degree of improvisation,” Kuffel said.
Historical Society Executive Director Virginia Anne Franklin Waters and members of the mural committee briefed Boatwright on the local history and showed him some documents before he painted the rendering. The society also had the wall painted a pale sepia-tone base color before the mural artists arrived.
Working from the rendering – the largest version was about 11-by-24 inches – they started out sketching lines onto the walls. Next they are blocking in larger “color fields.” Then they will go over the painting two or three times, or more, adding and refining details.
The Historical Society has kept the selection of colors simple. It’s basically “coffee and cream” and the range of values that can be mixed from those, Boatwright said.
The artists often have to climb down from the scaffolding and literally step back to regain perspective. Keeping things in scale is one challenge of mural painting, they said. Another is the painting surface.
“Every square inch of it gets some kind of consideration,” Boatwright said. “And then, this is a pretty good wall. I mean, we’ve painted on worse. “
It is relatively smooth for an old brick wall. But this duo has painted on surfaces such as corrugated aluminum, stucco and beadboard.
Boatwright has a degree in painting from San Francisco Art Institute and also went to film school in Los Angeles. While painting for more than 25 years so far, he has directed a number of documentary films and commercials and done architectural work planning houses. He once painted a mural onboard a cruise ship in drydock.
Kuffel, who holds a degree in linguistics from the College of Charleston, said he is largely self-taught in visual arts but has been painting for at least 20 years. His commission farthest from home had him painting a residential mural in London.
Four weeks, maybe
They started on Statesboro’s mural Jan. 8 and hope to have it finished in four weeks, weather permitting, or in 20 good working days. The Historical Society, a nonprofit organization, first budgeted for a downtown mural four years ago and estimates its total cost at about $25,500. The society worked with the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority to plan the project, at no expense to the city.
The society plans to move the Fabulous Fifty historical marker from the trail to a spot near the corner of City Hall, so marker and mural can be viewed together. Statesboro City Hall is also the historic Jaeckel Hotel, which was one year old in 1906.
Committee members thought the delegation’s return made a fitting subject for a mural because the excitement of the day was hard to convey with the marker alone, said Bulloch County Historical Society President Brent Tharp, Ph.D. It ties together Statesboro’s history, Georgia Southern’s history and the Savannah & Statesboro Railroad, he noted.
“There again, that spot made it really attractive because people would see it driving down the street but could also get off the road easily enough and see it with the little median there and the porch for City Hall that was a good viewing point for it,” he said.