For nearly 40 years, artists have used it as their canvas. Now, the levee needs major repairs and that means the colorful paintings will soon disappear.
The mural that covers the Arkansas River levee near Pueblo’s historic business district is a web of color and images. Local artist and teacher Cynthia Ramu, the volunteer coordinator of the levee mural for the last 22 years, says the first painting, a fish in a bathtub, got started in the dark of night back in the 1970s.
“On that night they put the fish on the wall and all of a sudden there was a tub around the fish," Ramu says. "Then there was a faucet and slowly some duckies appear in the water.”
Artists such as Ramu kept adding to the mural over the years.
“It kind of makes it like this little treasure hunt," Ramu says, pointing out a series of glittering, painted flowers by a fellow artist that recently blossomed along the levee. "There’s all these little things. It’s like why is that there? How did that get there? Oh, there’s more, just keep looking.”
But this massive mural that covers most of the nearly three mile long levee won’t be around for much longer.
“The levee is actually starting to shift down the slope a little bit and it’s buckling at it’s foundation,” Pueblo Conservancy District consulting engineer Kim Kock says.
Kock says repairs are needed to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) post Hurricane Katrina certification rules and keep downtown Pueblo out of the floodplain.
The levee’s height will be dropped about 13 feet, replacing the concrete. The proposed $15 million project is expected to begin next month.
Cynthia Ramu was shocked when she heard the news in September that all of the paintings on the levee would be destroyed.
But graffiti art, by its very nature, is at heart impermanent, says Paul Farber, a professor of urban culture at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Farber says most street artists understand that using public buildings as canvases means their work may be replaced or removed.
“It’s something that an artist may want to defy, Farber says. "Nonetheless, it’s a kind of reality and that’s part of a critical conversation about the various uses of public buildings and public architecture.”
Ramu and other muralists say they understand the public safety issues at stake and largely accept the fate of the mural, though they are sad to see it go.
Pueblo artist Matthew Taylor painted on the mural when he was a kid. He says it had a good run.
“So many of the old murals were decaying and falling apart anyways,” Taylor says.
Kim Kock says the district is currently looking at ways to preserve parts of the artwork. Once the repairs have been completed, artists will be allowed to create work on the new concrete. They'll also find it’s safer to access the levee.
"We’ve thickened a section of the concrete to where we can drill things in to provide for toe holds and that’s going to run the full length of the levee at mid height,” Kock says.
Kock says the repair project is expected to span three or four winters.
The bulk of the paintings will not be affected until next fall. So some artists are still planning to touch up existing murals and even paint new ones.