By JIM ROSS ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
WELCH — Ed Shepard can look out the window of his shop and see a reminder of days gone by in Welch.
It's painted on the side of a building.
Welch has three murals celebrating its history. Two are on buildings in the downtown area. The other is on a water tank on the bypass.
"It's just added so much to our city," said Mayor Reba Honaker.
The murals add life and color to a downtown that has suffered as businesses dried up and as floodwaters destroyed some buildings.
Honaker said the idea for the murals came from former Mayor Martha Moore. Moore had taken a trip to visit her daughter in New Mexico. While driving there and back, Moore noticed several cities had murals painted on the sides of buildings.
"She called me and said, ‘We could do that.' So we contacted Tony Acosta."
Acosta is an artist from the nearby town of Kimball. He painted the water tank first, then the building near Shepard's auto service station and then the last one — on the side of a four-story building next to the city's riverfront park.
Moore didn't get to see the last one completed, as she passed away before it was finished. But Acosta painted Moore in the lower right corner of that mural, looking out over the park that bears her name.
Acosta said the mural by the park covers about 6,000 square feet of wall space
"I got halfway through painting the mural, and I realized it was the largest painting in the state," he said.
Acosta said his brother did some painting on the mural by the park, and he usually had volunteers helping, too. The park mural includes some businesses that longtime residents of Welch will remember, and it includes images of people who helped with the painting, he said.
It took about a year from concept drawings to completion, "but I actually painted on the building for about four months, every day from daylight to dark except raining days," he said.
Acosta said Moore approached him about the mural by what is now the park at about the time he was finishing the one by Shepard's place.
Shepard enjoys the mural near his business. The image in the mural was adapted from a photograph taken in the 1920s except for one man in the lower right hand corner – Shepard himself.
"That was a joke. I thought he was kidding me. Just before he finished painting the mural, he told me, ‘I'm going to paint you down in the right-hand corner."
And the next morning, there Shepard was.
Shepard said he's posed for about a dozen photographs of himself next to his image.
He recalls when Welch was a thriving town with wall-to-wall people on some shopping days. That was when McDowell County had about four times the population it has now, and when a number of smaller businesses employed 100 or 200 people each.
"No matter what you wanted or needed, it was in Welch — the shopping center for the surrounding counties," he said.
But as times changed, the city did, too. The murals are a reminder of what once was, Shepard said.
"It's unbelievable what a city this was."
The flood in 2002 forced the demolition of several buildings along the Tug Fork. There are parking lots and vacant areas where some of them were, and the park was built in that area. It has a small amphitheater and a pedestrian bridge across the Tug Fork. And, of course, former Mayor Moore and other town residents watching over things from the mural on the side of an old retail building.
Acosta said he is negotiating with another city in West Virginia to do a detailed series of murals that will be more elaborate than the ones in Welch.