Artist Stephen Smith this summer will bring the work of Hamilton native Robert McCloskey to new generations of Butler County residents, when he and others paint a mural that salutes three of the writer/illustrator/sculptor’s works on the former Hamilton municipal building at 20 High St.
“I wanted to take a deeper look at McCloskey myself, because I was kind of naive to his work, after living here for 10 years,” Smith said. “I thought I might invest myself in another local artist and take a look at his work, so I ordered the books, and took some of my favorite drawings from them.”
Those books were “Homer Price,” “Make Way for Ducklings,” and “Blueberries for Sal.” McCloskey grew up in Hamilton and did most of his acclaimed work while living in the Boston area.
“For that wall (at 20 High St.), I thought it would be fun to combine them all together,” Smith said. “It’s a complicated scale there, with (a mural space) 20 feet tall and 100 feet wide.”
Smith and others will be painting his StreetSpark-funded mural from June 13-July 1.
McCloskey earned two prized Caldecott Medals, which are awarded to each year’s best-illustrated picture book.
The books for which McCloskey won Caldecott Medals were “Make Way for Ducklings” (1942), and “Time of Wonder” (1958). He also received Caldecott Honors (for those that were close to winning medals) in 1949 (“Blueberries for Sal”); 1953 (“One Morning in Maine”); and 1954 (“Journey Cake, Ho!”).
Smith, 37, who grew up in Mason and now lives in Hamilton, decided to take a more modern take on McCloskey’s work, which tended toward muted hues. So he added more vibrant colors that might appeal to a modern audience.
McCloskey’s work is so beloved that a sculpture representing his “Make Way for Ducklings” in Boston Public Garden is a tourist draw. But to Smith, one of the artist’s most impressive artistic feats happened during his youth in Hamilton: The relief work that’s done on the municipal building was actually designed and carved by Robert McCloskey when he was 18 years old.
“When you think about that, modern day, you’re thinking about like a high-school senior getting out there and designing and carving on one of the most prominent buildings,” Smith said. “That’s very impressive. It took a lot of confidence from the architect that built the building to trust him to do the work.”
Ian McKenzie-Thurley, executive director of the Fitton Center for Creative Arts, which cooperates with city government to run the StreetSpark program, said McCloskey is “one of the great sons of Hamilton, and leaves an indelible mark on the history of this city, and also the architectural and cultural makeup of this city,” he said.
“What Stephen has done with his piece is a modern interpretation of those incredible books, an incredible part of this city’s cultural history, coming alive in a fresh and modern way, bringing some vitality to the downtown area on what is a gateway to a big cultural are of the city (including Marcum Park, German Village and Hamilton Flea),” McKenzie-Thurley said.
“We’ve been talking with the McCloskey family, so they’ve seen that, and they’ve been engaged in the project,” he added.
Another artwork, a modern depiction of Hamilton namesake Alexander Hamilton that was designed by Miami University Hamilton art instructor Nicole Trimble, is scheduled to be painted from June 6-17 on the side of a building at 15 S. D St.
For her mural design, Trimble, 27, took a classic 1806 portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull and turned it into modern art.
“In my personal work, I tend to paint with a lot of bright colors, bold marks,” Trimble said. “I wanted to kind of bring that energy to something that uses that more iconic, reserved, quiet portrait of Alexander Hamilton, to bring the two together.”
Trimble, who returned Friday from taking down a three-person show in Clinton, N.Y., is originally from Oxford but now lives in Cincinnati. At least one of the two who will paint the mural with her is a student at Miami’s Hamilton campus.
“I’ve been painting murals for a couple years (in Cincinnati), and it’s nice to bring it to a new area,” she said. “Hamilton is definitely putting a big focus on the arts right now. I think it’s really awesome that they’re trying to put it more in the public eye. With the two murals going up this summer, they’re both so bright, and fun, and energetic, it’ll add a lot of vibrancy to the city, and draw more interest.”
“The Hamilton one is an obvious recognition of the namesake, one of the founding fathers of this country and of the financial system,” McKenzie-Thurley said. “It’s a name on everybody’s lips — in New York, (“Hamilton”) is probably the greatest show running on Broadway at the moment.”
The mural “is a way to represent the past in a dynamic new way, referencing the past, but with dynamic bursts of color. It’s a nod to the past, but with a very fresh and colorful feel.”