By John Archibald
Sometimes Wes Hardin stares down at his half-inch paintbrush and feels something close to panic.
For there's always a wall spreading before him, 1,000 square feet, or 10,000, a blank brick canvas stretching into forever. So much wall, and so much story to tell. And there's just him. And that half-inch brush.
"When I walk up to a wall I don't dare look left or right," Hardin said. "I get completely bound up with anxiety . But I stop -- I have to do it with every mural -- and go through the process of painting and realize what it is I love about it."
You can see it in those places that come alive with his graphic storytelling. His murals, in Dothan and Andalusia and now in Enterprise, in cities like Hillsdale, Mich., and Colquitt, Ga., dominate and reshape cities. They turn drab and decaying old walls into storyboards that paint the portrait of a town's life.
He's painted maybe 50 murals so far, featuring helicopters and locomotives, children and cattle, musicians and mayors and the wedding of Hank Williams to his beloved Audrey.
Hardin has been commissioned to tell the story of the industrial growth of Dothan, where he makes his home. He has painted the stories of turpentine and logging, of cotton and railroads. He has been commissioned to tell the story of soda fountains and businesses, of Sherman Rose, who trained the Tuskegee Airmen, and of musical legends in the Wiregrass.
He likes it best when there are stories to tell, like the "Swamp Gravy" of Colquitt, or of Rose, who was more proud of his life as an educator than his fame with the Airmen.
But it's not like he can put the Battle of Thermopylae on small town walls. Since most of the murals are commissioned by committees that want to tell a particular story, the murals sometimes become a long parade of "suggestions."
Which is exactly what happened in Andalusia.
A committee wanted a mural about law enforcement, and a mural about the city's oldest business. Hardin found himself yawning through the whole thing.
Let's face it. Painting a tribute to a business can be about as titillating as toast, so Hardin thought of a way to make everybody happy.
He turned the whole design into a parade led by a beloved traffic cop named J.D. Shakespeare. And from there it evolved to include judges and sheriffs and children and bands and a newspaper photographer and everybody who was anybody and some who were not. It featured the first all-female jury in Alabama - though it should be pointed out that this was not a real working jury, but a test jury. The people of Andalusia may have been enlightened for their time, but they were still wary. They held a mock trial to see if women were really capable of such things as jurisprudence.
They were, as it turned out.
The wall now features Miss America, who came to visit Andalusia decades ago - although city residents are still complaining that she took the position on the wall that could have been occupied by a Cotton Queen. By the time it was all said and done Hardin used 72 different photographs to fashion the "Parade on Three Notch" along the side of a building that took at least 200 hours to paint.
What, are you kidding?
Hardin laughs at that idea. He has long since realized that his work is public art. It's painted on public places, approved and often paid for by public committees.
So when people come up and tell him to add an indigo snake to a painting, he has to listen. When they tell him he needs to start over on Great Aunt Myrtle, he has to smile - and sometimes start over on Great Aunt Myrtle.
Art by committee is a terrible idea, he admits. But the committees pay the bills - which can come to tens of thousands of dollars or more for his work. Committees, let's face it, appreciate the value of art enough to ask for it in the first place. So he finds a balance, and a vision he can get behind.
It's why he talks to the people who gather to watch him work when it would be easier to stuff earphones in his ears and face the wall alone.
The work belongs to those people, he says, and he is but an ambassador for it. If they don't like him they won't like it. But if he lets them get their two cents in about Aunt Myrtle, they'll feel a part of it.
In the end it is those people who pump blood into his work, Hardin said. Like they did with the traffic cop, J.D. Shakespeare.
Time after time as he painted the parade people stopped him to talk about Shakespeare. And they did it with tears in their eyes, because Shakespeare meant so much to them.
"If it hadn't been for him they would be lost," he said. "I heard that more than once."
That's always when the magic happens, he said. Not in the brush strokes, but in the people who tell the real stories behind the paintings, who give him the emotion and the fuel for the job.
"All of a sudden I hear stories about what they did and how they lived," he said. "All of a sudden I have a sense of who they were, and that makes all the difference."
That's really why the murals in these towns are important, he said. They don't just brighten up drab old walls. They give people a chance to tell their stories, and learn from them.
"All these memories are locked away in people's minds and when we put them on the wall they are available for everybody to see -- and to ask questions. Who is that? Where is that? Why is that?"
All of a sudden it's not a big daunting wall at all. It becomes a story. And Hardin's job is done. John Archibald is "doing Alabama" for a month, writing 31 stories from 31 places in 31 days. Follow his journey and help him out. Send story suggestions email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @JohnArchibald (#ArchiBama) and on Facebook (John Archibald).
Credit to al.com