Artist's mural a testament to Kansas town's spirit

Howard Neighbors

August 04, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

Sitting in English Comp 101 in their first semester of college, many Howard County high school graduates will reflect on a summer spent making pizzas, mowing lawns and guarding pools - all respectable, if ordinary, pursuits.

Then, there is Annie Marcotte, 18, who just finished a 49 1/2 -foot- by-16-foot mural on the side of an office building in Palco, Kan.

"Out West, a lot of small towns are not doing well," said Marcotte, a Clarksville resident and graduate of Archbishop Spalding High School. "Palco wanted to keep its town up, and at a meeting of the Lions Club, I think, someone suggested painting a mural on one of the town's Main Street buildings."

Palco is one small town with a big, winning attitude. According to the Census Bureau, Palco is estimated to have a population of 228 as of July 1, 2005, though those interviewed for this column consistently set it at "around 400." No matter. The town seems to be thriving - and Marcotte's mural is a testament to the town's spirit.

Marcotte's father, Frank, 46, attended high school in Palco, and grew up in a neighboring town, Zurich, where his two brothers and mother farm today. Frank's older brother, Tim, was attending the Lions Club meeting where the mural idea was proposed, and when discussion moved to finding an artist, he suggested his niece, Annie. Marcotte had previously completed a 24-foot-by- 8-foot mural; about half the size of the proposed Palco project.

Marcotte was contacted by the Palco business people heading up the initiative, and given a minimum of creative input. "They wanted something that exemplifies the lifestyle out here," Marcotte said.

"Dad and I did some brainstorming," she said. "Having grown up there, he knew the kinds of things - like oil wells - that might work."

Marcotte submitted sketches, and she and the Palco business people settled on a basic design. She picked out paint colors and sent a list of materials she would need. In the end, the mural project required several paint rollers; a number of 2-inch, 4-inch, 1-inch and half-inch brushes; 15 gallons of exterior acrylic house paint in 12 colors and numerous containers for mixing colors.

Marcotte's father made the trip with her in June, to work with his brothers on the farm while Annie painted. They arrived on the 16th in torrential rain. She set to work early the next morning.

"First, you have to grid it [the wall] with chalk lines," Marcotte explained. Next, working from her plans, she used a graphite carpenter's pencil to sketch in the basic lines of the mural.

That evening, a storm washed away most of her work, and she had to start over the next day.

Marcotte would rise about 5:30 each morning to get to the wall by 6:30 or so, often staying until the daylight dimmed and some coolness returned to the site. Her goal was to finish the mural in a week, and visit with her grandmother and uncles the second week.

"I knew I had that extra week if I needed it," she said. With the exception of that early rainstorm - and one oppressively hot day when she had to leave at noon - Marcotte thinks the weather cooperated. But that was nothing compared to the cooperation of the Palco citizens.

"People are way too nice out there," Marcotte said. People of all ages turned out - from grammar-school pupils to senior citizens - lending scaffolding, cleaning brushes, painting large color blocks under Marcotte's direction, or providing lunch for Marcotte "on the house."

"I didn't expect to meet so many friends here!" Marcotte said.

She quickly put the volunteers to work. Henry Kern came by daily, happy to wash brushes and hold the ladder. Twins Rachelle and Ashley Morel, rising seniors at Palco High School, painted alongside Marcotte most days. Was it hard for Marcotte to delegate, as an artist?

"Not really," said Marcotte. "I would go over and show them how to do something, and usually they'd be able to follow along and do it. I might go back and add a few shadows later or something."

Marcotte took photos of each day and would often step back during the process to review and assess. "I'd also call my art teacher - Renee Tobin - to let her know how it was going," she said.

Marcotte refers to Tobin, art department chairwoman at Archbishop Spalding, as her "second mother," and credits Tobin with guiding her through art in high school; from skipping Marcotte ahead a level in painting class early, to helping her compile her Advanced Placement art portfolio. Marcotte will attend Maryland Institute College of Art on several scholarships in the fall.

"This is the first time I've felt very much in charge of such a big project," Marcotte said. "I'm pleased with how it came out."

The mural depicts a summer day with elements that telegraph life in small-town Kansas: a winding country road, an oil well, a grain elevator, cattle, a pheasant, a wheat field and sunflowers - all framed under a clear blue sky.

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