For all the supposed controversy swirling around the Mirant mural project planned to grace the fence at their Potomac River Generating Station in North Old Town, it was not evident Monday night at The Lyceum. Nine people turned out to hear artist Christopher Erney explain the $423,000 project.
Commissioned by Mirant Corporation, the 1,200-foot long public art project, titled the "George Washington Mural" by its creators, Erney and Patrick Kirwin, is being touted by Mirant as "the longest standing mural in the United States" upon its completion.
It will be painted on a 10-foot tall existing wooden fence along the property line on the western boundary of the George Washington Memorial Parkway bike path in Alexandria. The mural will depict nine scenes from George Washington's life — many featuring local Alexandria historical landmarks such as Gadsby's Tavern, Christ Church, Carlyle House, the Apothecary, and George Washington Memorial Masonic Temple.
"Most of the people associated with these local historical sites that I have talked to about being included in the mural are very excited and supportive of the project. They all want to be included," Erney said prior to his powerpoint presentation explaining the research that he and Kirwin have undertaken in preparation for the project.
When questioned as to why Mirant was investing this amount of capital in such a project as opposed to other endeavors to improve the plant's operations or be of greater benefit to the City, Tony Bullock, executive vice president, Ogilvy Public Relations, which represents Mirant, said, "It's not like the money could be used for something else. We have made vast improvements to the plant's operations. Mirant is very excited about this project."
Erney is a fine-art sculptor who is "active in the local art scene and maintains a sculptor studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center," according to his biography. He also serves on the Alexandria Public Art Committee.
Kirwin is a mural artist from Arlington. He has taught locally at
the Smithsonian, the Corcoran Art Gallery, and the Art League of Alexandria, according to Mirant.
In addition to Mirant, sponsors of the project include: Golden Artist Colors, Inc., New Berlin, N.Y.; Purdy Professional Painting Tools, Portland, Ore.; and Zinsser Co., Inc., Somerset, N.J. All financial support is coming from Mirant.
"When I first became involved it was just to paint something on the fence. Then we decided to do a complete historical story of George Washington's life and his involvement with Alexandria," Erney said.
"We have a long history with George Washington in Alexandria. But, there is not much around Alexandria that depicts that history. The history of George Washington in Alexandria is pretty disconnected," he said.
The artists also plan to use local re-enactors as models for their work, according to Erney. The mural will end with a section titled "Legacy of Washington." It will depict various images and monuments honoring Washington such as the Purple Heart Medal, currency, stamps, the Washington Monument and others.
"We want the George Washington Mural Project to be a source for free education and enjoyment. It gets pretty complex to get to Mount Vernon and it’s expensive," he said.
"I talked to a teacher in an Alexandria school who told me most of her students would never get to Mount Vernon but would walk along the waterfront and see the mural. That will help them," Erney said.
In addition to the Alexandria locations to be depicted, the mural will include Washington's boyhood home at Ferry Farm, Great Falls, Fort Necessity, Yorktown, Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, Valley Forge, and Washington's Crossing. In describing the latter, depicting Washington crossing the Delaware River, Erney said, "We intend to depict the actual type boats used — not those depicted by other artists."
ALTHOUGH THERE are those in Alexandria, including local leaders, who have expressed displeasure with the project due to the on-going struggle between Mirant and the City, Erney noted that the project has the support of the National Park Service which controls the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
"We have worked with the Park Service on this and they have indicated to me their support," he said. That was verified somewhat by David Vela, superintendent, George Washington Memorial Parkway.
"What's involved with this project is not on our property. We don't control it. But we are always willing to hear what our neighbors say about any project or proposal involving the parkway and nearby land," Vela said.
"We are always looking for opportunities to further the knowledge about George Washington. To say the Park Service is in favor of this particular project would apply only in the context of our overall goal to supporting opportunities to increase the general knowledge of George Washington," he said.
Rather than avoid the controversy between the City and Mirant, the artists' Web site explaining the project at www.gwmural.com seems to inflame it by taunting those in Alexandria who object to it. Under the title: "Two Frequently Asked Questions and the facts as we know them" the site makes the following observations.
"Is there a mural controversy? Sort of. Alexandria like any town has a small population of folks who don't want anything new or any change ... unless it is their change." They go on to put down the Festival of the Arts by those they characterize as living in "multi-million dollar homes" who only care about having convenient parking and ease of movement throughout the City.
Their Web site also appears to take on a definite political mode in questioning the controversy about the Mirant plant and how the plant is necessary to supply power to the regional electric power grid as well as predicting that the Mirant site, sans the plant, would become a home for more condos and offices triggering the use of more air polluting vehicles.
Finally, the artists state, "We are in the middle — but, we would rather just paint. This isn't all about the air, it's really about the development of that land and the large amount of money to be made. The developers are letting the air quality folks lead the charge — why wouldn't they?"
George Washington, in addition to being the father of the country, a military leader, a political leader, and a large landowner was also a pragmatic entrepreneur. That seems to be missing from the Mirant mural, nor was it addressed in Erney's presentation at The Lyceum.