“To date, we are not aware of any film that has explored the unique and successful approach towards community-based art taken in Portsmouth. While this will generate local interest in the project, the larger themes of community revitalization and the power of art will give the film a broader appeal beyond the Scioto County area.” – from Beyond the Walls documentary synopsis.
A small documentary film, focusing on an even smaller grassroots effort, shows that art and history can be a large part of the transformation and revitalization of a community. And it all started with a big flood. This is where the story begins…
A Little History
After years of devastating floods by the mighty Ohio, the 1937 flood took its toll on the city of Portsmouth, Ohio, with loss of lives, businesses and homes. Even into the 21st century, people talked about the ’37 flood. After the flood, the Citizens Flood Defense Committee began its “It Can’t Happen Again” campaign. Started in 1940 and completed in 1950, The Army Corps of Engineers supervised the construction of a 77.1-foot steel-reinforced concrete floodwall, including a system of levees and floodwalls stretching seven miles. Fortunately, with better river management, the region has been spared from a flood of that magnitude. However, decades later, the city encountered a new challenge – dealing with an ugly 77.1-foot concrete structure. The floodwall that had protected the city for nearly 50 years had become an eyesore – a “concrete monstrosity.”
A bus trip up the Ohio River provided the much needed solution. In 1992, Dr. Louis Chabody and his wife, Ava, took a tour of Steubenville, Ohio. There they saw that the city had murals painted on its floodwalls and brought the idea back home. Thus, a nonprofit organization was formed to raise funds for the mural project. Portsmouth Murals, Inc. (PMI) soon began looking for a mural artist and found Robert Dafford, of Lafayette, La., to begin the project. Local artist Herb Roe worked with Dafford on the project for 15 years. Thus, the metamorphosis began.
PMI originally planned to commission “2000 Years of History, 2000 Feet of Art,” consisting of 52 artistic murals, nearly 20 feet high, across the 2,200 feet of concrete wall depicting the last two centuries of the history of the area. Hundreds of photos from the Carl Ackerman collection at the Southern Ohio Museum were reviewed and the first mural was created from a photo showing a view of Portsmouth from the Kentucky side of the river. During the next 10 years, the major portion of the floodwall, more than 2,000 feet, was covered with a historical art depiction of the city of Portsmouth – from the Hopewell and Adena cultures to the Shawnee Indians to notable Portsmouth residents of the 21st century.
Inevitably, the murals brought more than just beauty to the city. A new welcome center was constructed. Offices for the Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Portsmouth were added and the influx of tourists was not far behind. Today, people from all 50 states and around the world visit Portsmouth to see the murals. It is one of the largest outdoor art exhibits in the world and soon to be larger as it becomes the subject of a new film – Beyond the Walls – set to debut this fall.
Documentary filmmakers John and Nathan Lorentz of Lorentz Productions in Portsmouth – the father and son team who created the much-touted 2002 film River Voices focusing on the 1937 flood – have produced a new documentary, Beyond the Walls, about the murals in Portsmouth. The idea of creating the documentary began in 2003. But, John Lorentz saw a much deeper and richer story than just that of painting the murals. The major theme of the documentary is how public art can re-invigorate an area.
“A small group of people had a vision of what was possible,” Nathan Lorentz said. “I think the film is really about the art and what it does for the community.”
The father-son team had many questions: What did this mean to the city of Portsmouth to raise the money for the mural project? What is the role of public art? What kind of impact does it have in the community? All the elements were there for the documentary and John and Nathan took a lot of time interviewing many people to create it. The film tells about more than the transformation of a blank wall, but also about the transformation of a community – a community that may not have known about what impact the murals would have.
“It (the murals) is an amazing project but there are so many aspects,” Nathan Lorentz said. “There is a story to tell and the challenges they faced were huge.”
The film delves into how a small group of community leaders wanting to stimulate the economy and transform a “dying part of town back into the vibrant place it once was” accomplished their goal. Portsmouth has experienced an increase in both tourism and economic development since the addition of the murals.
“It’s beyond just the art on the walls,” John Lorentz said. “The murals have brought a sense of pride and optimism to the community.”
Beyond the Walls will premiere Saturday, Nov. 2, at Shawnee State University’s Vern Riffe Center for the Arts in Portsmouth.
At press time, showtimes had not yet been announced. For more information, contact the McKinley Box Office at (740) 351-3600.
Photos by Ashley G. Quinn and Compliments John Lorentz