New Mural Depicts Region’s Labor History

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A Bronx mural artist and students from the Ohio University printmaking department have depicted the region’s labor history in a new mural in downtown Athens.

Artist Chris Stain was brought to Athens on Monday as a visiting artist to help design and paint the mural, which is located on the wall outside of Lucky’s Sports Tavern on Court Street. OU printmaking student Barry O’Keefe said he was familiar with Stain’s work and suggested that he be one of the department’s visiting artists.

Stain, who grew up in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore, does a lot of figurative murals, often depicting people in the inner city.

After doing some research on the region, Stain said he realized that labor, specifically coal mining, had a rich history in Southeast Ohio. The image he selected to paint on the large stucco wall is one of coal miners. The image was based on actual photographs taken by Arthur Rothstein in 1937 for the Farm Security Administration. The photos were taken at a coal mine in Birmingham, Alabama.

O’Keefe said the project took about a year to organize. To select the site for the mural, he said he drove around Athens and made a list of possible locations. He said the wall on the side of Lucky’s was a top choice. O’Keefe said he contacted the owner of the property, Kelly Hysell of Rutter Rentals in Nelsonville, about the project. Hysell’s family has a history of coal mining and was supportive of the mural, O’Keefe said.

OU printmaking professor Art Werger said the department had hoped to bring Stain to Athens to begin on the mural in the fall, but that the weather prevented that from happening. Werger said this week’s weather limited some work sessions as the work was slated to begin on Monday, but didn’t happen until Tuesday due to rain.

In order to get the outline of the image onto the wall, the artists utilized an overhead projector, spray paint and a scissor lift — working until about midnight each night. The remainder of the mural was done with rollers and paint.

“It’s still like printmaking,” Werger said. “There were stencils and rollers used.”

In addition to the four coal miners, the Sophocles quote “Without labor nothing prospers” is also incorporated into the design.

Stain said he was really enjoying his time in Athens and said the highlight of the trip was talking to former coal miners who stopped to discuss the mural throughout the week.

Stain said the mural isn’t just about coal mining, but labor in general.

“It’s about people recognizing hard work,” he said. “My grandfather was a steel worker and everyone in my neighborhood worked with their hands. It was kind of ingrained into me.”

Funding for the mural project came from OU’s printmaking department, Arts for Ohio, OU’s School of Art + Design, and the OU College of Fine Arts.