GREENFIELD — With splotches of paint scattered on his clothes, shoes and eyeglasses, Andrew Hem could finally take a break Wednesday afternoon. The internationally-known muralist spent half a week, from sunrise to sunset each day, bringing a James Whitcomb Riley poem to life in downtown Greenfield.
The two-story mural, located on the west side of a building at 20 W. Main St. in the city’s North Street Living Alley is the first of its kind downtown, said Jenna Wertman, associate planner for the city.
Hem, who hails from Los Angeles, was chosen to paint the mural because of the contemporary approach he gave to Riley’s “A Barefoot Boy” poem, Wertman said.
A group of city leaders put out a call for artists to undertake a mural for downtown, Wertman said. They worked with the Indiana Arts Commission and other area arts organizations to get connected to a national database of artists. After receiving 20 proposals, from local to national artists, Wertman said they eventually narrowed it down to Hem and a New Palestine artist.
The decision to choose the muralist was difficult, she said, but Hem’s concept personified the 18th-century poem in a new way.
“When you look at that mural you don’t necessarily see James Whitcomb Riley off the bat and it’s a fun way to re-imagine Riley,” she said, “and provide a modern spin on some of that heritage we focus on all the time.”
Wertman said community leaders chose the West Main Street building because of its visibility on U.S. 40 and its location in the North Street Living Alley. She said the city has made that area into a “corridor for art,” and that they hope for more murals on downtown business buildings in future years.
“That’s really the heart of where all of our projects are emanating from at this point,” Wertman said. “We really like to celebrate that.”
When Hem was developing a concept for the mural, he was inspired by the youthful nature of the boy. The mural depicts the “barefoot boy” jumping across a creek. Hem painted two other children on either side of the boy in lighter colors to keep the viewer’s eye on the boy as the mural’s focal point.
“I saw from reading that poem, a kid who really doesn’t have a care in the world and enjoys life,” he said.
Hem spent about four days painting the mural, waking up at 7 a.m. and finishing up around 8 p.m. He set a game plan for each day and took just short breaks.
“I just knew I had to get the job done — seconds mattered,” Hem said, with a laugh.
The creek in the mural is based off Brandywine Creek, an area where Riley spent much of his time as a child in Greenfield and later used as the setting for “The Old Swimming Hole” and “A Barefoot Boy.” Hem visited the creek when he arrived in town last weekend and incorporated the trees there in the mural.
Hem has been painting murals across the world for about seven years. He’s visited 20 countries for his work, including Finland, Morocco and China. Once, Hem said he painted a mural in 24-hour daylight in the Arctic Circle, where he saw the Northern Lights. Now, Hem’s off to paint a mural in Guam.
“All dreams that I’ve been wanting to do, and murals got me there, so I’m grateful for that,” he said.
Hem, who’s also painted about 20 murals in the United States, said he’s appreciated the close-knit community of Greenfield, much different than the congested environment of Los Angeles. As Hem worked on the mural during the week, he said locals stopped by to take photos and watch him work.
“Everybody here’s so friendly and everything is well received so I’m glad they enjoyed it,” Hem said. “It’s nice to get a thumbs up.”
A group of Greenfield and Hancock County leaders celebrated Hem’s work on Wednesday afternoon, just minutes after Hem wrapped up the mural before 4 p.m. Several community groups raised $16,000 worth of donations and supplies for the mural, Wertman said.
Greenfield Main Street, Hancock County Community Foundation, Hancock Health, Dellen Automotive Family, Greenfield Banking Company and MacAlister Rentals all donated funding for the project, Wertman said, while Hancock County Arts, the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department and Leadership Hancock County also assisted with the project.