A fusion of ideas and a collaboration between academic and civic interests spawned a colorful, creative endeavor that has transformed a dreary set of highway underpinnings into a clever, eye-catching work of art in downtown Wheeling.
Motorists and pedestrians may be startled, but soon are smiling, when they observe the artistic depiction of age-old fairy tales on the piers underneath the Fort Henry Bridge and Interstate 70 overpass in the area of Ninth and Main streets. The bridge supports serve as an unusual canvas for paintings planned out by artist Robert Villamagna of Wheeling and executed by some of his West Liberty University students and an assortment of colleagues from the area arts community.
Characters from the Norwegian fairy tale, "Three Billy Goats Gruff," are depicted on the west side piers. The east side of the Bridge Pier Project features illustrations for six well-known fairy tales: "Little Red Riding Hood," "The Cow Jumped Over the Moon," "The Cat and the Fiddle," "Humpty Dumpty," "The Three Little Pigs" (specifically, the pig who built the brick house) and "Jack and the Beanstock."
The Bridge Pier Project came to fruition through the combined efforts of Villamagna's honors seminar at the university and the Wheeling Organization, Training, Revitalization and Capacity team that wanted to develop a visually attractive gateway to the city.
Villamagna, an assistant professor of art at West Liberty, explained the project's genesis. "In the spring of 2011, I submitted a proposal at West Liberty University to teach an honors seminar on the subject of street art and graffiti," he said, "The idea for the class came about based on my photographs of New York City street art taken over the past 15 years. Along with my own images, there has been a huge amount of material written on the subject of street art, as well as several documentary films."
The artist explained, "I was interested in street art and its effect on contemporary art. It has had a big effect, in the past 10 years."
Villamagna's proposal was accepted by Dr. Peter Staffel, chair of the WLU honors program. The honors seminar would run for 16 weeks during the 2012 spring semester, with the final four weeks devoted to painting on site in an urban environment. However, the educator admitted, "I had no idea where that was going to be." The project had to be "something legal," he emphasized.
Last November, Villamagna was talking with Susan Hogan, a member of the ON-TRAC design committee, when she mentioned a pier painting project that had been done in Charleston. In the capital (where a second set of piers are being done now), artists were hired and each was assigned to paint one of the bridge piers.
Hogan told Villamagna that ON-TRAC representatives were thinking of organizing a similar project in Wheeling. Villamagna responded that he had just gotten approval for a class on street art in the spring semester. They began discussing the possibility of linking the two projects.
She explained that ON-TRAC is a program set up by the governor as a precursor to the national Main Street program. Wheeling Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey is chair of the group's executive committee; members of the organization are involved in development and various professions.
"The design committee has historical preservationists, an architect, an engineer, a scientist, community volunteers. And we have a lot of fun doing this," she remarked.
Hogan said the ON-TRAC design committee has adopted the 1100 block of Main Street and the city's gateways as its work projects. The committee also has drafted design guidelines with suggestions for property owners to follow, she said.
Meanwhile, Villamagna assembled lecture material, PowerPoint presentations and documentaries to use in the class that started in January. On Jan. 2, he recalled, Hogan called and asked for sketches.
"I'd looked at the bridge piers. I know there's a Norwegian fairy tale, 'Three Billy Goats Gruff,' about a troll that lives under a bridge. The goats are trying to cross over to greener pasture. So I designed the sketches for that," he said. "On the other side, I would sketch out six different fairy tales, just a snippet of each one."
Villamagna sent scans of his sketches to Hogan and she passed them on. ON-TRAC officials orchestrated the next step of gaining approval from the West Virginia Department of Highways (which owns the property) and the Federal Highways Administration (which regulates interstate highways). Permission to undertake the project was granted in March.
The street art honors seminar received support from ON-TRAC, Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. and the city of Wheeling, he said. Wheeling city workers power-washed the concrete surfaces of the support piers prior to painting.
Blessed with beautiful weather in March and early April, Villamagna and the five students from the honors class launched the project on the west side of the bridge site. The instructor designed and laid out the scene for the "Three Billy Goats Gruff" paintings for the students to fill. "They did great. A couple had never done any painting," he said.
The honors students were Nikki Baker, Amanda Swan, Tricia Brown, Andrew Price and Amanda Carney. They finished the "Three Billy Goats Gruff" scenes before the semester ended in early May.
On Monday, May 14, two days after graduation, Villamagna put a call out on Facebook for artists interested in helping fill in the sketches for the six fairy tales on the opposite side of the street. Visual artists, writers and preservationists responded to the call.
"One of the students (Swann) from the honors class was able to help," Villamagna said. "We had four or five people the first day. We worked six days, over a period of two weeks. We had a couple of the same people and a couple of guest people. Three or four people put in 12 to 14 hours with me. Then we had a couple of people who did just an hour."
Volunteers who helped Villamagna paint illustrations from the six fairy tales were Shannon Baldauf; Eric Price; Swann; Hogan; Chris Villamagna, Bekah Karelis, Jeremy Morris and Hal Gorby from WNHAC; Lambros Tsuhlares; Mia Szabo; West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman; Georgette Stock; Andrea Cowan and Roy Jenree.
The final touches on the east phase were completed in 90-degree temperatures on Memorial Day. Six people toiled in the heat that day and, by 1 p.m., "we had it done," he said.
Hogan commented, "We have so much to thank Bob (Villamagna) and his creativity. It's been an amazing experience and one of the most meaningful. When people were walking by, of all ages, especially those with children, they would stop and have a picture."
The volunteers were gratified by "the support of people walking by and honking," she said. "It's lifted some of the spirits of bringing out the child in all of us who love colorful artwork with a little fun meaning behind it."
Hogan said the city and WNHAC were responsible for the support of the Bridge Pier Project which had a total budget of $2,000.
Looking ahead, Villamagna said, "I wouldn't mind doing something down the road, with different subject matter, in some shape or form.
"I'd like to do an urban painting class where a painting is started indoors and transferred outdoors," he added. "I'd like to see more of that stuff kind of happen."
Hogan said the ON-TRAC design committee is working on another project to create a gateway between the former Marsh Stogies factory and the Virginia Apartments in the 900 block of Main Street. That project will feature a stainless steel sign to welcome people entering Wheeling from the Fort Henry Bridge, traveling from the Wheeling Tunnel and heading south on Main Street, she said.
The gateway will incorporate an old fence from the Hazel Atlas Building. The gates of the fence will be adorned with metal birds that Villamagna designed for a former pocket park in the 1100 block of Main Street, Hogan said. The gateway, funded through the Regional Economic Development agency and WNHAC, has a $6,000 budget, she added.
"We are working on some other projects in that neighborohood," she said. "Then we'll move on to another gateway."
Hogan also said ON-TRAC is changing its name to Downtown Wheeling Inc. and is working on securing nonprofit status.