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Decades-long Paducah floodwall mural project nearly complete

The Paducah floodwall murals, envisioned by artist Robert Dafford, detail the history of Paducah along Water Street.
Robert Dafford
Wall to Wall Inc.
The Paducah floodwall murals, envisioned by artist Robert Dafford, detail the history of Paducah along Water Street.

A mural project nearly three decades in the making is approaching completion in downtown Paducah.

Louisiana-based artist Robert Dafford started painting the floodwall murals — which overlook the Ohio and Tennessee rivers — in 1996, intending to capture Paducah’s history on 62 large panels across three blocks on Water Street. Fast-forward to the present, he and his right-hand men Herb Roe, Miguel Blasala and Mark Manalo have only 10 new panels to complete and a few aging telephone murals to restore.

“The process that I use — with a primer and a top coat and a color coat and a layout and the grid and another grid — is slow to get started,” Dafford said. “And a lot of money and time were spent on that much preparation. Two-hundred-feet of concrete wall is a lot of material and a lot of time. It’s complex having all these different moving parts.”

Dafford was approached to helm the project in 1995 by several officials involved with downtown development and tourism in Paducah. This included Ro Morse, who has since stepped up as the executive director of the Paducah Wall to Wall Inc. advisory board.

The primary involvement of the city is to annually maintain the paint, landscaping, sidewalks and lighting using funding allotted during former Mayor Gerry Montgomery’s tenure.

“We thought that it was going to be very challenging to find sponsors because this is a public-private venture,” Morse said. “Every image that’s been painted down there has been paid for by an individual person or a private business.”

Following the completion of the main three-block section in 2010, the remaining panels tucked behind the 1923 Mikado train had been left unpainted until a yet-to-be-announced donor contributed the necessary funds. Each of these 14-feet tall, 20-feet wide panels will be joined together to recreate an early 1900s railroad map of the route trains traversed between New Orleans and Chicago with exchange point Paducah in the center.

“[The project] really is a visit to our past, and it connects the future in a way that really and truly I don’t know any way that it could be done better,” Morse said. “Children come, students come, visitors, locals, and just stroll that riverfront all the time, day and night, and have for all these years.”

While in town, Dafford taught a 12-day “Murals Master Workshop” at the Paducah School of Art and Design (PSAD), during which nine students from across the nation contributed to the downtown panels to gain hands-on experience.

“The heat is the only problem that’s an ordeal. It’s over 100 degrees on the floodwall every day,” Dafford said. “But I like the process. I’m not wishing for the end. Of course, you like to have a nice finish sometimes, but this is my life.”

Although PSAD Director Paul Aho had discussed with Dafford the notion of him training students at the school as early as a decade ago, Morse’s push to finish the final stretch of the floodwall murals ultimately persuaded Dafford to follow through with it.

“They spent the first week working indoors learning Robert’s techniques and how he adjusts color to create atmospheric perspective for his murals, for his pictorial process of creating the illusions of space and depth and such,” Aho said.

The floodwall murals are projected to be completed before the end of the summer. In the meantime, interested residents can consult the accompanying book published in 2020.

“I’m really impressed with what the city of Paducah has done to make it a very well designed and maintained visitors’ attraction,” Dafford said. “Other cities have done similar, but no one’s done as much as Paducah has done for a project I have worked on.”

Dustin Wilcox is a television production student at Murray State University. He graduated from Hopkinsville High School in 2019.
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