Emotion and Grandeur of Historic Steamboat Race Inspires River Campus Mural


Photo fo the Gary Lucy Mural

Gary Lucy of Washington, Mo., has been working steadily since 2004 when he was commissioned by Southeast Missouri State University to paint a mural for River Campus.


July 30, 2007 – Gary Lucy of Washington, Mo., has been working steadily since 2004 when he was commissioned by Southeast Missouri State University to paint a mural for River Campus.

The work of art, titled “Inland Waterways: The Highways of our Heritage,” will reflect a river theme. Lucy says this is a fitting premise for the new River Campus, situated on the banks of the Mississippi River at the foot of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge.

When it is completed, the mural will be hung next to the entrance of the new Rosemary Berkel and Harry L. Crisp II Southeast Missouri Regional Museum. The museum will highlight Southeast Missouri as a crossroads of geology and geography and modes of transportation, including the area’s legacy with the Mississippi River. 

The mural’s centerpiece depicts the historic Great Steamboat Race of 1870 between the Robert E. Lee and the Natzchez. Lucy, a self-proclaimed “American Artist,” said the steamboat race was the country’s first big media event.

“At 10:45 p.m. the night of the race, the Robert E. Lee was noted to pass a huge assemblage illuminated by bonfires along the banks in Cape Girardeau,” Lucy said. “My depiction of the grand steamboat with fire visible from her chimneys reflects the emotion and grandeur that the citizens of Cape Girardeau would have felt at that time.”

According to the history books, huge sums of money were wagered and large crowds traveled considerable distances to line the banks of the river. The progress of the race was broadcast through the new telegraph to a national audience.

“This event embodies the grand age of the river,” Lucy said.

The centerpiece is bordered with two side panels filled with images reflecting the river’s many different vessels and passengers. The images progress from early dugout canoes, flatboats and early steamboats such as the New Orleans 1811 to images of Civil War ironclads, the Delta Queen 1924 and towboats of today. The far right offers a view from the pilot house of a modern river vessel of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge and two children who are fishing.

“For thousands of years before the railroads developed in the mid-19th century, the only highways we had were the rivers,” Lucy said. “The left mural panel represents river travel before steam. Mississippian travelers as well as flatboat and keelboat men are represented on this panel. The right side of the mural represents steam travel and progression to modern towboat traffic of today.”

In honor of the new facility for the visual and performing arts, Lucy dedicated four panels along the top of the mural to the four disciplines to be taught at River Campus: music, dance, theatre and art.

“The symbolism of the total work reflects that of a steamboat. It has chimneys on each side, decorative posts in the center, a boarded exterior along the bottom and four panels at the top representing the marquees listing a steamboat’s port of call,” he said. “The arch in the center symbolizes the arch wheel covering the great side wheelers of the river.”

Although Lucy has no other projects going on at the moment, the mural’s creation is a multi-faceted undertaking. He has detailed the making of the mural in an online journal, which is available at http://www.garylucy.com/captainslog/semo12-7-04+05-11-05.html.

“Working on a mural is like eating a bowl of very average pasta – the more you eat, the bigger it gets,” Lucy said. “There are many projects within this project. The mural’s frame must be made from scratch to contain the nine-foot six-inch by 27-foot work. Then it must be photographed, which will be a hard job. All of the text accompanying the mural will have to be written and printed.”

The finished mural will be crated and shipped via truck “very carefully,” according to Lucy, so it remains unharmed during the two-hour trip from Washington, Mo. Once the mural is safely installed at River Campus, a formal dedication ceremony will take place Homecoming weekend at the end of October.

“We’ll need a crane operator to lift it from my third-floor studio, an 18-wheeler to move the mural from Washington to Cape Girardeau and a team to prepare it for installation it at River Campus. A little word of prayer should be offered. It all works on paper,” Lucy said.

This is not Lucy’s first large-scale project. In 1977, he was commissioned by the West Plains Bank in West Plains, Mo., to complete a seven-foot six-inch by 22-foot mural featuring Missouri wildlife. In 1979, he received a grant from the Missouri Arts Council to complete a five-foot six-inch by 18-foot mural for the City of Washington.

Lucy said special considerations must be made for large-scale works, such as how to light the canvas without creating a glare.

“When I did my first mural in the late ‘70s, I built a studio with a ceiling height of 16 feet. I was able to get the light high enough to reduce the glare,” Lucy said. “The ceilings in my current studio are only 11 feet so I am experimenting with spacing the lights to each side of the area being painted. It has proven to be more difficult than I thought it would be.”

While most murals are painted directly onto a building’s wall, Lucy paints on large canvas stretchers to ensure the survival of the work.

“After studying murals which were painted directly onto the walls, I’ve found that many murals are lost over time,” he said. “It is either too expensive or impossible to remove the work when the building is no longer useful. Thus, the art is lost.”

To give you an example of why the canvas stretcher system is important and must be adjustable, Lucy related the following scenario.

 “If you’ve ever hand-washed a sweater, you’ll remember how the sweater swells as it gets wet. The combination of pounding with a brush, the additional weight of the paint and the liquid being absorbed into the canvas’ fibers causes it to swell and become loose,” he said.

Because of his previous experience working on murals, Lucy anticipated the point when the canvas would get loose. However, thanks to the canvas stretcher system installed on the back of the mural, he was able to alleviate the problem.

“Tightening a canvas is like tuning a large drum. I use a wrench to adjust the multiple turn buckles. As I turn the mechanism, the stretcher system expands,” he said. “The process is repeated throughout the canvas stretcher three times a day because I want the canvas to tighten slowly.”

Once the mural for River Campus is complete, Lucy said he has three other commissioned jobs from which to choose. He also plans to do some work aboard his river studio, a houseboat affectionately called the “River Rover,” which will allow him to paint the river as it is today.

Lucy graduated from Southeast Missouri State University in 1971 with a bachelor of science in education degree. Lucy has received the 1993 Alumni Merit Award for the College of Liberal Arts, the “Southeast Salutes” award from the University’s Alumni Association, the “Spotlight Award” at the Missouri Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 2004 and the Regional Commerce and Growth Association’s 2004 Individual Achievement Award, “Sold on St. Louis.” Lucy completed a renowned series of paintings titled, “Lewis and Clark: The Journey Begins,” which generated a great deal of interest in conjunction with the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The images Lucy researched and created were received internationally and reproduced in magazines and newspapers such as Time, Newsweek, The Smithsonian, Better Homes and Gardens, US News & World Report, USA Today and numerous other publications. Collectively, Lucy’s images have been reproduced 225 million times.

Photo of Gary Lucy painting the mural. Gary Lucy,working in his studio in Washington, Mo., adds detail to the steamboats that will line the bottom section of the mural.