By George Douglas Lee
Several months ago, I was commissioned to create one of the mosaics for the Seawall Interpretive Trail (Project SIT) benches. For any of you who are long-time Galvestonians you may remember the hard concrete benches that have been on the Seawall, from the east end to west, since the 1930’s, many in some stage of disrepair or neglect. Karla Klay, Executive Director of the Artist Boat, took the initiative to seek authorization from the City of Galveston to turn those handy yet frankly ugly eyesores around. The City said “yes.” Karla, the Artist Boat team, and locally-based art experts put together a call for artists to submit pre-selected thematic designs for each of the 70 benches.
I was one of the artists who answered the call. My submission, “Galveston Seawall – Protection and Promenade” was selected by the review committee. Fortunately, I didn’t know what I was getting into. The “paint” was more like powder, made from clay. It dried too fast. And when it did dry, it didn’t look like anything on the sample sheet. It was very pale as it dried lighter and much of it soaked into the tiles. More coats of paint were required. A tiny needle nose applicator was provided for lettering. It simply didn’t fit my hands, nor with my neuropathy inflicted hands, could I manage it. Plus, it kept clogging with the thick, powdery paint. Somehow, the bench turned out to be “not quite” proportional to the size of my original design.
Since it was a tile mosaic, each tile had to fit precisely and the design had to be maintained regardless of the actual bench size. Learning curves aplenty. At one point, I broke a tile and tried to glue it back together, but Artist Boat project manager, Amanda Rinehart caught me. A new tile was painted. With trepidation on my part, the tiles went into the kiln and out they came with this amazing vivid color! The bench is located at 19th St. and Seawall.
Not all of the themes had as yet been selected by artists. A second call to artists soon followed. My “Fort Crockett – Germans Among Us” design was selected by the review committee. After the learning experience of the first bench, I thought the second would be a piece of cake. It might have been had it not been for rotator cuff surgery midway thru the project. With no idea of how painful or debilitating such a surgery is, I “shouldered on” – not! In those moments when “not” knocked out by pain medication, I studied the history of Fort Crockett and the German POW’s detained here. It is a fascinating history. Learn all about it; the bench is located at 53rd and Seawall.
With my left arm now attached to my side, I thought I was finished with benches. No one had selected “It is Good to Have Goods” about Galveston Bay’s shipping industry. Amanda Rinehart called, saying she thought I’d do a good job with the theme. This took another deep dive into the history of the Galveston and Houston ports’ rivalries and progress. Eventually the permanent sling for my shoulder became less so. I found better methods to use the paints and threw that silly black ink applicator for lettering away, creating my own lettering tool to tell the stories.
With the tiles for each bench turned in, fired and installed, once again I thought my job was over. One bright, sunny, blustery cold January day I was asked to meet the sponsor and his family at the “Galveston Seawall – Protection and Promenade” bench. Tom Morrissey and his family had donated the funds for the artwork in memory of his late wife Heidi Morrissey. It was both touching and humbling to have had the opportunity to contribute something so lasting in her memory.
I hope you will join me 4-6pm at the Seawall Interpretive Trail bench, “Fort Crockett – Germans Among Us,” at 53rd St. and Seawall, Saturday, March 4th for ArtWalk get together.
Feel free to sit a spell!
Artist Boat’s Seawall Interpretive Trail (Project S.I.T.) public art residency program is a beautification project approved to transform 63 Galveston Seawall benches into educational works of art that depict the coastal and ocean heritage of Galveston Island and the Gulf of Mexico.
For more info and a full list of the bench locations go to artistboat.org/project-s-i-t.