TERRE HAUTE — The likenesses of 52 Vigo County people influential in politics, education, the arts, entertainment and sports comprise a third artistic mural to be placed in the Vigo County Courthouse.
The finished mural was nearly a year in the making, as Bill Wolfe, well known Terre Haute sculptor/artist, required numerous hours of research to find photographs or images as well as time to paint the mural between other projects, such as a bronze statue in honor of a fallen Terre Haute Police officer.
The mural project started in 2009 after the Vigo County Board of Commissioners approved the use of the first-floor rotunda at the historic 19th century county courthouse to display four mural oil paintings from Wolfe.
The paintings are paid entirely with private funds. Each mural panel is 10 feet long and 5 feet high.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Wolfe’s latest mural is the use of paint brushes belonging to D. Omer “Salty” Seamon, a renowned water color artist who died in 1997. Wolfe used the brushes to paint Seamon’s image on the mural.
“Salty Seamon’s wife, Polly, gave them to me. She said Salty would have wanted me to have them. When I was painting, I thought Salty would probably be yelling right now because I am using oil paints on his good sable watercolor brushes,” Wolfe chuckled.
“One brush still had a price tag on it. It was $70,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe is incorporating a bell in each mural. A bell is easy to find in the first two murals. This mural is different, as the bell is actually Dr. Greg Bell, a Terre Haute native who won a gold medal in the long jump in the 1956 Olympics while a sophomore at Indiana University. Bell jumped 25 feet, 8 1/4 inches for the medal. Bell became a dentist in Logansport and director of dentistry at Logansport State Hospital.
The mural includes both the living and deceased. Only four of the renderings are in color. It was not something planned, rather Wolfe said if he had a color photograph of a person, he used color in the rendering, such as for Evan Bayh, a Terre Haute native who served three terms as a U.S. senator and two terms as Indiana governor.
Near him, but not in color, is Birch Bayh, his father, also a Terre Haute native, who also served three terms in the U.S. Senate.
The others in color are legendary baseball pitcher Tommy John; Larry Bird, basketball star at Indiana State University, an NBA all-star for the Boston Celtics and former Indiana Pacer’s coach and executive; and Lee A. DuBridge, president of Caltech, who was featured on the 1955 cover of TIME magazine as America’s senior statesman of science.
Some other renderings include Virginia E. Jenckes, the first female U.S. representative from Indiana. Also Daniel Voorhees, who became a U.S. senator and James Whitcomb, who practiced law in Terre Haute and served as Indiana governor in the 1840s and then as a U.S. Senator.
The mural shows three of five Medal of Honor winners, including Civil War recipients Peter J. Ryan and John T. Stearling, as well as Charles Abrell, killed in the Korean War.
There’s also Joe Keaton, a Terre Haute native who owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini, an American stunt performer known for sensational escape acts. Joe Keaton was the father of silent film comedian and director Buster Keaton. There is also silent film star Velesca Suratt; and writer, poet and attorney Max Ehrmann, whose poem “Desiderata” is on the mural. A life-sized bronze statue of Ehrmann, made by Wolfe, was dedicated in 2010 in downtown Terre Haute.
Also in the mural is musician, singer and actor Scatman Crothers and Eugene V. Debs, an advocate of industrial unionism and a five-time presidential candidate.
In sports, there’s boxing champion Bud Taylor; John Wooden, who coached at ISU and led UCLA to numerous NCAA championships; and Tony Hulman, who established the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indianapolis 500 and was president/CEO of Hulman & Co. in Terre Haute. Also baseball Hall of Famer Max Carey.
Wolfe said he hopes this mural will inspire youth to succeed.
“I hope if a youngster comes in and looks at all these people, the youngster will think, ‘hey, maybe I can make a difference’ like these people did with their lives and devotion to their passion,” Wolfe said.
Keith Ruble, superintendent of the Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department, said the frame for the third mural will either be made from tulip poplar or northern red oak. Ruble said he expects to have the frame built and the mural installed by the end of February or sooner.
Two murals by Wolfe depicting the lives of Francis Vigo and Saint Mother Theodore Guerin are already on display. One depicts Vigo, after whom the county is named. Born in what is now northern Italy and named Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo, he later helped fund George Rogers Clark’s recapture of Vincennes from the British during the Revolutionary War.
He visited Terre Haute in 1834 as part of an Independence Day celebration. He also bequeathed funding for a two-ton bell, made in 1887, which remains in the upper dome of the county courthouse, an area not open to the public.
The other mural displays Guerin as an infant, a girl walking along the coast of her native France and as an adult. Guerin is the eighth U.S. saint and the only Hoosier to achieve that status.
Wolfe plans to start work in about a month on the fourth and final mural — incorporating history such as Fort Harrison, along with technology and industry.