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Paducah Wall-to-Wall organizers unveil final panels of 26-year downtown mural project

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WKMS
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Derek Operle

A downtown Paducah mural project spanning more than 25 years and 60 floodwall panels is finally complete.

The Paducah Wall-to-Wall project, started in 1996, aims to bring the western Kentucky city’s history to life along its downtown riverfront.

Well over 100 people attended the unveiling of the final 200-foot section of murals Friday. Local officials, lead artist Robert Dafford and others spoke before the first tour along the newly completed section.
The first 20 panels were completed in 2001, with another 30 added by 2010. These depict important scenes from the city’s history – like the Battle of Paducah and the 1937 flood. These newest murals recreate an early 1900s map of the train route between New Orleans and Chicago with Paducah in the center.

Paducah Wall-to-Wall board chairman Fowler Black emceed the proceedings, which featured live music, refreshments and a crowd singalong of “Paducah” from The Gang’s All Here.

“I call this Paducah’s diary, and there is no better book for local history than this – these portraits of our past,” Black said.

Ro Morse, the volunteer executive director of the initiative, said the project is a vital work for downtown culture in the city.

“It shows that we value our history, we value the arts, we value everything that this wall represents. Art is just like an amazing way to express how important our history is and to see people walking up and down the wall any time day or night. It’s exciting,” she said. “I know it sounds crazy, but history truly does come to life when you walk along our floodwall. These large images speak volumes to people.”

Morse estimates the project cost well over $720,000 dollars – at an average cost of around $12,000 a panel for 60 murals – without factoring in maintenance costs or artist lodging and travel.

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Derek Operle
Paducah Wall-to-Wall board chair Fowler Black speaks to the attendees at the unveiling celebration for the final panels of the downtown mural project Friday, Sept. 2, 2022.

Black thanked major financial contributors to the donor-funded project over the years, including Bill and Meredith Schroeder. He also honored the memory of former Paducah Mayor Gerry Montgomery – who made a key donation to the project to get it over the finish line shortly before her death in 2021. The City of Paducah still financially supports the annual mural maintenance, landscape care, sidewalks and lighting for the project. This public-private partnership was funded during Montgomery’s administration.

“It takes passion to finish a multi decade project and a project that includes fundraising and asking people for money. Today, thanks to [Montgomery’s] vision, and the desire to complete the project, we celebrate by unveiling the railway map depicting the rail lines from Chicago to New Orleans, Paducah being a pivotal halfway point,” Black said. “We're also the pivotal halfway point between Louisville and Memphis intersecting in Paducah.”
Dafford, a Louisiana native, leads a team of muralists that have completed similar projects around the country. He said Paducah Wall-to-Wall has been a joy for him and other muralists – including fellow muralist Herb Roe and several others – to work on, and he’s proud to be a part of “one of the most successful downtown revitalizations going on.”

“We have been coming here every year for 26 years, and working as hard as we can to get these done,” he said. “Everyone who lives here, all the citizens of Paducah, have been so kind to us. And they've liked us and welcomed us and made it a lot easier to work. People bring us water or tea, or give us encouragement and thanks and pat us on the back.

“It’s been really meaningful to me to be a part of it. Now you've become a UNESCO Creative City with the results of all of these dovetailing projects that have made you truly a shining star on the river, like they used to say.”

Mary Hammond, the executive director of the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the project provides both Paducahans and tourists with an engaging visual aid to learn about the city’s past.

“There's Paducah history that I never really understood, until I saw the graphic – the mural, and it's like, yeah, I can tell that piece of history, because I can visualize it now,” she said. “It's that whole combination of our life, our reflection of who we are, the culture of our community. We talked about sustainability … the sustainability that I'm most interested in is sustaining the culture, the culture of our town, and who we are.”

Black, too, commented on the murals’ ability to help people engage with history first-hand, especially when members of the Paducah Ambassadors – a red-shirted volunteer group focused on welcoming people to the city – lead tours along the floodwall.

“If you just look at the bronze placard, that's awesome information,” he said. “But when the museum turns into a living history, that's when it really gets good. And that's what we call immersive.”

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Derek Operle
Muralist Robert Dafford, the lead artist for the Paducah Wall-to-Wall project, takes attendees of the unveiling of the final panels on a guided tour of the newest panels, which recreate an early 1900s railway map from New Orleans to Chicago with Paducah at the center.

Paducah City Manager Daron Jordan also spoke Friday, commenting on the level of commitment from Morse and others involved in the long-running project.

“Projects like this don't occur without VIPs,” he said. “And when I talk to our team about VIPs, I talk to them about people that have vision, people that have inspiration and then people that have perseverance. When you talk about a project going 26 years in the making, it takes a lot of VIPs.”

Jordan also mentioned that the city was looking into a proposal for a new lighting system for the murals.

What’s next for Morse after working on Paducah Wall-to-Wall for 26 years is still up in the air. She said the commemorative book published in 2020 documenting the project is set for an update, with eight new pages covering the recently added murals, but she’s already eyeing another public art opportunity: a new Welcome to the Port of Paducah mural.

While this next project is still in its infancy, Morse is hopeful about its prospects. She wants to incorporate students from Dafford’s mural workshop he taught at West Kentucky Community & Technical College's Paducah School of Art & Design over the summer, some of which aided in more recent additions to the floodwall art.

“We don't know if that's going to happen or not, but that's what we're looking at next. That's just our dream, but, you know, everything starts with a dream,” she said. “We've always talked about having a huge quilted ‘Welcome to Paducah’ sign so that people that are going by Paducah via river can see it because we are Quilt City USA.”

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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