Artists decorate downtown Columbia stormwater drains

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:38 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Mike Sleadd and eight other Missouri artists, as part of a public art project sponsored by the Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ art festival, decorated nine sewer covers downtown in an effort to raise awareness about litter that winds up in the city's creeks and streams.

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.

Drain mural artists and locations

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.

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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.

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Kevin Gamble August 15, 2012 | 1:34 p.m.

Great idea, great results, and great message. Kudos to the organizers for sponsoring this and to the artists for their excellent work.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin August 15, 2012 | 3:55 p.m.

Very cool idea with great artists involved. Shout out to Jenny McGee, whose wonderful work also hangs prominently above our mantle at home.

I drove by while Jane Mudd was working on her piece at 6th and Elm and thought about how clever it was. The drains are already painted yellow as a caution to people on foot, so these larger murals not only add art, but boldly let pedestrians know to be cautious as they walk by.

I hope the murals last for several years. Nice welcome for SEC fans as well.

(One caveat: Let's be sure to pay the artists well for this next time. Not too keen on the donated time and talent thing -- no, no, no. Projects like this are well worth taxpayer dollars. They bring a unique sense of community identity to a place; they educate; and they make pedestrians aware of potential hazards like storm drains.)

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 15, 2012 | 5:10 p.m.

I like them, too, but let's talk maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.

People are going to walk on the murals, and the rain/sun will hit and fade those pigments.

Will the murals be maintained and, if so, who will maintain them?

We already have sufficient trouble with maintaining white lines and bike lanes on our roads without creating additional eyesores.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 15, 2012 | 5:13 p.m.

Personally, I would have liked to have hired that guy that paints all sorts of neat murals on roads/sidewalks, especially the ones that look like you are about to step off into oblivion. His sense of perspective is amazing.

That would keep the walkers off.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders August 15, 2012 | 5:44 p.m.

Mr. Martin, you are free to pay the artists whatever you believe their efforts are worth to you, as is anyone else so inclined to see them compensated.

Perhaps you missed the part in the article where it states they could've had 40 or more artists VOLUNTEER.

What you seemingly fail to realize, is that they do this not only out of a community spirit, but that they see it as a benefit to their own career. It's what one might call an opportunity for recognition, something most every aspiring artist desires.

Because without eyeballs, they're no different than any other hobbyist.

But hey, go ahead and demand that the poor are taxed so that you don't have to feel guilty about your own failure to support the arts.

(Report Comment)
Mike Heimos August 15, 2012 | 6:12 p.m.

Thanks to everyone who made comments. To answer the question of maintenance, when the artist have finished the murals will be sealed with a special clear coat sealant made specificity for outdoor artwork. It will protect it from the elements. It will have to be applied every two years and before you ask, I will be doing that.

Thanks again to all the artist, the City, Sherwin Williams and their great staff, and all the folks at R&B&B!

Everyone who has donated their time to this project! It's why I am proud to live in Columbia and work for the City....because of folks like them!

Mike Heimos
Stormwater Educator from the City of Columbia

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 15, 2012 | 6:20 p.m.

Thanks, Mike, for the clarification.

Not-slick-when-wet, I presume.

PS: What clear-coat sealant will be used (I need a name)? It must have some sort of UV absorbent to keep the pigments from fading. I could use some of that.

(Report Comment)
Mike Heimos August 15, 2012 | 6:35 p.m.

Darn! I always forget something...I have already sealed one mural (located @ 5th and Cherry) it takes 3 coats, with 12 hours in between, the final coat has shark-shards, a product that will make it slip free. If you feel the mural at 5th and Locust location. It has a rough sandpaper feel, like those slip stripes you see on steps. I was afraid that it would dull the paint on the mural, but to be honest it really made it pop. The shark-shards also are reflexive at night when hit by headlights.

I did a lot of research before we started the project. My hope is that these murals will be around for many years to come and this program is something we can do every couple of years at different locations throughout the city.

Thanks Again for the comments

Mike Heimos
Stormwater Educator for the City of Columbia

(Report Comment)
Mike Heimos August 15, 2012 | 6:39 p.m.


Yes it has UV protection...Call Sherwin Williams and ask for Tony the store manager...he can answer all your questions.

Mike Heimos
Stormwater Educator for the City of Columbia

(Report Comment)
frank christian August 15, 2012 | 6:44 p.m.

I suppose everyone, having visited FL Keys has driven thru the Homestead "downtown" main street and the beautiful pastoral floral designs Paved into the intersections of their business area. Certainly impressed me, but "just sayin'".

This certainly seems a great alternative. With today's problems, why not look at a "storm drain" in Columbia and get a grin?

(Report Comment)
Michael Sleadd August 15, 2012 | 6:53 p.m.

Artists are asked often by organizations to donate artwork for auctions, etc. Indeed this is done more often that we would like. But, some causes are worth the donation of our time (and art), and this is one of those. Sure, visibility is nice, but most of these artists don't need the visibility at this point in their careers. Two are university professors, one is a nationally known children's book writer and illustrator, another owns an art gallery in Columbia, one is a professional graphic designer, another displays her work extensively and just had an exhibit in New York. We have done this project for the same reason that many in Columbia volunteer their time and talents--we are in love with this city. It is something that we can do to help our waterways and hopefully make people aware that if it goes into the goes into the streams. My kids used to wade in these streams and catch crawdads. We want future generations of children to do the same thing.

And to answer the question about the coating being "slick when wet". A material that I understand to be powdered glass has been added to the clear coat to prevent slipping. Very big thanks to Sherwin Williams for also donating to this project. AND, a huge thanks to Mike Heimos for his work to educate people about the importance of keeping our stormwater under control and clean. The next time you see a cigarette butt tossed on the ground pause and think about what happens to it. It usually goes down the drain and into our streams where it never degrades...never. Here is a very good video on stormwater. Please watch, think and learn.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin August 15, 2012 | 10:02 p.m.

Don't know what the heck Richard Saunders is talking about and I didn't expect to be called out for my caveat, but I'll reiterate: I am absolutely, unabashedly OPPOSED to this idea that artists donate their work, especially in a rich town like this one that pays people who contribute a fraction six figure salaries and up.

I was honestly flabbergasted to read that all this work was donated, and I piped up about it in a reasonably subdued way.

I've said the same thing about Missourian columnists, and others in related professions. While I am sympathetic to the artists, I will NEVER understand the audacity of the organizations who ask these folks to work for nothing. It galls me to no end.

All this nonsense that these artists (and writers) need or get recognition in exchange for freebies is also just that: nonsense.

What they need is a paycheck for an honest day's work, not to be part of a freebie that makes someone getting a paycheck look good.

City Hall is not a charity, and city storm drain work is not a charitable enterprise. Is Steve Heimos getting a paycheck for his work? Public works director Glascock? City arts director Chris Stevens? You're darn tootin' they are, with bennies to boot! So why not the artists out there making them -- and our city -- look good?!

I'm disappointed the artists were not paid, and extra disappointed to think that meanwhile, the city manager is demanding his severance pay be doubled, and Speer Morgan is plotting a way to pay a new manager over $100K to take on the new Mizzou Press!

(Report Comment)

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