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Murals around Huntsville

Exploring past of historic murals around town

Contributing Reporter

Published: Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 02:02


Nicole Gabler | The Houstonian

Local artists used history of the state and the city of Huntsville to paint the murals that are seen by thousands of residents, students and travelers daily.

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Huntsville is known worldwide as the land of prisons and the death penalty.  Few people realize that underneath the town's criminal justice façade is a unique artistic community bursting with history and creativity.

The town square is a myriad of murals by world-renowned artists with local ties. A walk around downtown is like a journey through an art exhibit.

"Huntsville has a distinct art culture," said Amy Haggard, Ph.D., an art history expert and professor at Sam Houston State University. "Even with major cities like Houston, Dallas, and Austin nearby, Huntsville certainly holds its own artistically, particularly for a smaller city."

 Trompel l'oei

Something is not quite right about the top of the 19th Century Gibbs Building on the North side of the Town Square.  The paintings are so realistic that they appear to be stonework carvings instead of an artistic trick of the eye. The tradition of trompe l'oeil, French for "deception of the eye", creates the illusion of three-dimensional objects on a two dimensional surface.  

The Houston murals facing east on the corner of 11th Street and University Avenue are the city's largest trick on the eye.  The three large murals rise two stories and depict "Houston as Colonneh the Cherokee," "Houstons at Woodland Home," and "Battle of San Jacinto 1836."   These architectural details are by renowned artist Richard Haas.  Haas has a knack for reviving lost history and culture in buildings.   

"[The murals] are fascinating to look at and are quite a reach back to the history of Huntsville," said Lee Jamison, a resident Huntsville artist. "They are the largest single collection of the works of Richard Haas in the world. Haas told me once that Huntsville was unique in his experience for the city's capacity to pull together for a cause."

Making murals in downtown Huntsville is like making a movie because it is a collaboration among hundreds of people, Jamison said.

Cloud 9 Mural

The Ahysen Mural on the corner of 13th Street and University Avenue is the largest free-standing painting in the United Sates, according to The East Texas Sunday Drive Book.  The 938-square foot ceramic mural was created by Harry J. Ahysen, a former art professor for 31 years at Sam Houston State University.

 The large mural shows Huntsville in the spring, but only half of the original art remains.  Natural wear and tear wore many spots down to bare brick.  A large scene depicting Stone Henge, dolphins flying, and Saturn replaced the original stick figure bicyclists.  Ahysen was one of ten official Coast Guard artists and was named State Artist of Texas in 1980 and 1981.  

Other Art on the Square

The Square has many more visual masterpieces to check out.  The Lead Belly Building Murals also by Richard Haas on 1221 Sam Houston Ave. shows the blues composer Huddie William Ledbetter with his guitar.  

In 1916 Huddie was sentenced to 30 years in a Huntsville prison on assault charges and killing a man, according to The Huntsville Convention & Visitors Bureau.  He was released seven years later after begging pardon from the governor with a song.  

Haas' mural was controversial, but paid tribute to a one of America's blues legends. Haas also painted The Famous Texans mural across from the Ahysen Mural.  

Murals express an artistic message on a large scale and are man's earliest artwork.  They are a way to beautify a blank wall and visually tell the history of Huntsville.

"We live in a low budget, fast paced, faux world today," said John Knotts, a Huntsville artist who worked with Richard Haas on the architectural illusions. "So faux painting is sometimes better than plain. The murals on the Square add visual appeal to an otherwise plain look."

Take a walk around the Square and get in touch with the deep Texas history.  The detailed murals astound.   

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