COLUMBIA — Mike Sleadd didn’t paint the tiger so much as find him crouching there in the concrete.
With claws outstretched, the big black-and-white cat guarded the entrance to the storm sewer drain at the intersection of Seventh and Elm streets. The tiger was just one of several murals planned for downtown streets in a fine art project designed to educate visitors to the area about the importance of keeping the stormwater sewer system clean.
Lisa Bartlett — South Ninth and Elm streets
Ben Chlapek — South Ninth and Elm streets
Rodger Francis — South Fifth and Cherry streets
Jenny McGee — South Fourth and Cherry streets
Jane Mudd — South Sixth and Elm streets
Maura Mudd — South Fourth and Locust streets
Dennis Murphy — Cherry Street, between Fourth and Fifth streets
Mike Sleadd — South Seventh and Elm streets
Deborah Zemke — South Fifth and Cherry streets
See a map of the drain mural sites with a link to the artists' biographies.
The City of Columbia and Thumper Entertainment, the company that produces the annual Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ Festival, brought together nine Missouri artists who donated their time and talents to produce the educational murals.
Sleadd, the chairman of the Art Department at Columbia College, had sketched his design for the storm drain mural on paper, but translating the idea from paper to the 10-foot-by-10-foot section of sidewalk required a little flexibility — both artistic and physical.
With an ebony pencil, he drew tentative lines on the white-washed canvas, expanding and contracting the curves and swirls of what would become the tiger’s eye or snarling fangs.
“As you can see, I’m from the school that says if you put down enough lines, some of them will be the right ones,” Sleadd said.
With a wince, he knelt down to thicken this line or that, choosing the right ones as he worked his way across the mural.
“As I work, the details of the drawing reveal themselves to me,” he said.
Sleadd’s usual work is mainly pen-and-ink drawings, for which he uses an antique pen, dipping the metal nib into an inkwell that dates to the 1900s. He usually draws on watercolor paper, and before the concrete project, the largest work he’d done was about 5 feet by 4 feet. This drain mural is more than twice that size.
The mural project came about when two separate ideas merged into one.
Mike Heimos, stormwater educator for the City of Columbia’s Public Works Department, said he wanted to do a storm drain mural project after attending the first Roots 'N' Blues festival and other downtown events, and saw the large amount of "people pollution" — trash and litter generated by the tens of thousands of visitors — that could wind up in the city's waterways. After some online research, he found similar projects around the world, including a successful project in Springfield.
Thumper Entertainment had approached the city several months ago about doing an art project related to the festival, Heimos said, and the two groups decided to work together. The Columbia City Council approved the project Aug. 6, Heimos said.
Thumper President Betsy Farris persuaded the Sherwin-Williams store on South Providence Road to donate the heavy-duty mural paint. Farris also reached out to Sleadd, who contacted the other artists to see whether they’d participate.
“Everyone I asked said they’d do it. I probably could have had 40 or more artists doing murals,” Sleadd said. “I have had a lot of people say they wished they could have been involved, so there’s definitely a lot of interest in doing this sort of work.”
Farris said she believed the project would be a good way to educate people about the importance of keeping the storm drains clean.
“It's a great way to do two things at once,” she said. “Educate and bring some cool artwork to The District."
The project's educational angle is what led Sleadd and fellow artist Jenny McGee to join.
Sleadd’s wife, Barbara Hoppe, represents the city's Sixth Ward on the council and has always stressed the importance of keeping the stormwater system clean, he said.
For McGee, the importance of clean water spurred her involvement.
McGee and her husband David spent their honeymoon in El Salvador, a trip that changed into a seven-and-a-half-year stay. In El Salvador, McGee learned that Coca-Cola was more accessible than clean water.
“During my seven-and-a-half-year life in El Salvador, my eyes were open for the first time to the world crisis of lack of clean water and sanitation,” McGee said. “When this project came about, I got excited mainly because I felt I could be a participant and have an impact on raising awareness on how critical clean water is to our health and happiness in the community.”
McGee’s drain at Fourth and Cherry streets will include a message: “No shenanigans down the chute.”
“It seems like a pretty simple solution to say ‘don’t throw your cigarette butts down this hole …'” McGee said. “It’s an easy, no-brainer solution to keeping our watershed clean and available for drinking and sanitation.”
Supervising editor is Ann Elise Taylor.