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Pueblo Levee under construction. (Photo Kevin Malella)

“We had a keg underneath the Fourth Street Bridge” – An Oral History of the Pueblo Levee Mural Project

To many who’ve been involved with Pueblo’s art scene over the past several decades, Dave Roberts is the founding father of the Pueblo Arkansas Levee Mural Project. Once the longest mural in the world according to the Guinness World Records (though Roberts himself takes issue with this distinction), much of the artwork was recently demolished in the name of renovating the concrete which it adorned.

Roberts himself is an artist specializing in graphic design who studied at Colorado College, the Rocky Mountain School of Art, and the Colorado Institute of Art. After making a small fortune working on commission for the Golden Nugget Gambling Hall in Atlantic City in the early 1980’s, he began looking around for his next big project. After a professor at CSU-Pueblo (then known as USC) was caught painting on the levee with some students, Roberts thought he might just have found the perfect opportunity.

I’m thinking I need to do something big, and I need to do something that’s fun and what I want to do—not just some piece for a casino. So I went down to the Pueblo Conservancy [District] board and talked to Gus Sandstrom. It was an election year, and they were going to put in casino gambling in Pueblo West. And they had thought that possibly the casinos had sent me to Pueblo to do this levee and put in the largest mural in the world.

It had nothing to do with the casinos. But the deal was that it was public property, and so we were in court for a year or something like that. Gus Sandstrom and Joe Losavio were in an election heat [at the time]. And Gus Sandstrom said it is public property, and this guy’s coming in and probably gonna do some killer s–t on the side of the levee. And Joe Losavio says ‘You’re trashing public property.’ And Gus Sandstrom won the election.

So, finally, I got permission to paint on the levee.

The Early Days

When I saw the contract, I couldn’t freakin’ believe it. It was so funny. The contract was so open it didn’t say that I couldn’t invite people all over the country or the world to go paint on the levee. It had nothing to do with that. It had mostly to do with insurance. All I had to do then was have a disclaimer which anybody had to sign before they could go paint on the levee which said if you have an accident on the levee, then that’s your problem and sorry you drowned. So to speak.

I think I got arrested twice painting on the levee, all because the police and the government didn’t have a good rapport, and so they didn’t know I had permission. So here I am with maybe a few other people, ten or so other people, painting on the levee. And then, ‘What are you doing?’

‘Well, we’re painting on the levee.’

But I didn’t have the contract in my pocket while I was painting. And we had giant scaffolds, Chrissakes, to paint on the levee. So you could stand on the levee parallel to the face of the earth instead of at a forty-five degree angle. They would roll up and down the levee on grocery cart wheels, and we would take two five-gallon buckets in a grocery cart, and run it down into the river and run it back up. If you can imagine you were on one end of the rope, then you could easily pull up ten gallons of water up to where you wanted it to be and then tie it off so that you had water where you were painting.

The two problems with it were that number one, you can’t paint in the middle of the day. You can’t paint from about ten to three or four in the afternoon because the levee is a massive solar collector. So you couldn’t paint then because you’re standing on a hundred and ten degree surface. Latex would dry so fast that it wouldn’t adhere because the concrete was too hot. So you’d have to roll up all this water and then pour it down the side of the levee, and then paint, so that your paint would adhere to the concrete.

The logistics was such that you don’t know until you do it that yes you have issues here, and you need to address them.

Characters Galore

[There were] people from all over the state and people that had just moved into Pueblo, and gosh, all kinds of cool and exciting things started to happen. And I just had carte blanche. If you needed a place to stay and you’re out of state or you’re out of town — we’ll get you a place to stay. And I had enough friends in Pueblo to give everybody a place to stay.

Then I went down to all the bars and restaurants in town and said, ‘This is what we’re gonna do. If I bring eight artists over here to eat lunch, can we get four lunches free?’

I had them lined up! My God, we could almost go anywhere we wanted. Free beer, free meals, and then pay half the price.

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You’d get people like some family [that] just moved here from Illinois with their kid, and you’d see them having a picnic on top of the levee. And they’d paint a giant stork, because it’s their town now. It was very interesting that all these people would come together, from around town mostly, wanting to be a part of it.

‘This is our town,’ [they’d say], ‘and we want to have our kids come down ten years later and see the piece we did. We’re a part of Pueblo.’

Anyway, it got to a point where it began to get pretty damn big, obviously. You had people coming from everywhere. Now you had people coming in from northern Colorado, you had people coming in from out of state to paint on it. And Cynthia [Ramu, the Levee Mural Project’s current organizer] had a part to do with that, insofar as ads in papers in Chicago and New York, and Jamaica and whatever, to come and paint on the levee. And they’d stay a week in Pueblo while they were painting their piece.

I had money so I brought the ropes and paint. And, I might add, beer. We had a keg underneath the Fourth Street Bridge. And lemonade and stuff like that, depending on who it was.

Next would be one guy who held the record, oddly enough, for being in prison the longest in the state of Colorado. I don’t remember the guy’s name. This was 1986 or something like that. Anyway, he had just gotten released from prison, he was like 88 years old or something like that. So his family came down on the levee, camped out [and started painting].

A lot of transients who were riding the trains … were stuck there for a couple of days while they were waiting for a train. Because they wanted to pick up a specific train, and they couldn’t pick up that train for two days because it wasn’t coming through Pueblo at the time. And so the transients would paint on it.

And then it got to become a form of useful public service. So, people who had gotten traffic tickets or had beat up their wives, or their wives beat up them, or whatever it may be —the city of Pueblo County gave them permission to paint on the levee as their useful public service. Because they’re beautifying Pueblo.

Acquiring Paint

In the meantime, how do you deal with all of these people painting paintings all over the levee and have to supply them with thousands of gallons of paint?

So I’d be on the phone all the time calling contractors and trying to find thousands of gallons of free paint. And then the city of Colorado Springs, John I-can’t-remember-his-last-name, says ‘I’m the head of Colorado Springs Waste Disposal, and I need you to put in a bid for taking on six or seven thousand gallons of paint.’

And I’m going ‘Are you kidding? And how much am I supposed to pay for this shit?’

But it’s not that they wanted me to put a positive bid, but maybe that they’d pay me $12,000 to take all this paint off their hands. Well that was pretty cool. So we did that. That involved three semis, shrink wrapping, pallets, and a crew of seventy people. Because everything has to happen in one day, because that’s how those programs work. But that was cool because that paid for the levee.

So the recycling of paint actually paid for the levee.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.)

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