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Valrie Eisemann paints a mandala along the Arkansas River levee Oct 16, 2020, in Pueblo. Eisemann, a La Veta-based artist, is taking part in a project to paint panels along the 3 mile levee. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

PUEBLO – With her specially created paint holder in one gloved hand and a brush in the other, Valrie Eisemann added a wide swath of bright blue paint to her mandala before grabbing her rope and scrambling up the concrete slab.

The 33-year-old real estate broker from LaVeta was visibly shivering.

“Laying on cold concrete chills you to the bone,” she said, and later posted on the Pueblo Levee Mural Painters Facebook page that she would not recommend painting at the levee in windy, 40-degree weather.

Painting along a 3-mile long concrete wall pitched at a 45-degree angle above an at-times roiling river is not for the faint-of-heart artist. But for those who tie themselves to a rope and rig up a way to hold a bucket of paint, it is a canvas unlike any other.

Valrie Eisemann navigates the 45-degree pitch of the Arkansas River levee in Pueblo while painting a mural. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Eisemann was the first to begin painting on the new Pueblo levee mural, which got underway Oct. 4. She has been joined by three others on a stretch of the levee west of the Fourth Street bridge downtown.

They are the first of dozens of artists expected to participate in the project, which is aimed at restoring a historic treasure to the community as well as recapturing a world record.

An art levee born of tragedy

The levee story began nearly a century ago with the tragic Pueblo flood of June 3, 1921.

Torrential rains along the tributaries that feed into the Arkansas River sent a wall of water into the narrow channel that wound through downtown. It swept up buildings, train cars and tracks, vehicles and people. An estimated 1,500 people were killed, although an official count was never made because so many simply were missing in the debris or downriver.

Within a year the Pueblo Conservancy District was formed to reduce flood risks as well as to conserve or develop water and recreation resources. It decided to divert the mighty river into a new channel south of downtown and built a massive levee to protect the city from future floods. Work was completed in 1925.

For years, the levee was a prime target for graffiti.

But in 1978, some students from the University of Southern Colorado — now Colorado State University Pueblo — known as the Tee Hee artists snuck onto the wall at night and painted by flashlight. When the “Fish in a Bathtub” appeared near the Fourth Street Bridge, people loved it and the idea of painting murals along the length of the levee was born. And legalized.

Muralists and artists from throughout the state were attracted to the project over the next couple of decades. Among them was Cynthia Ramu, who had just graduated from the Art Institute of Colorado when she learned about the mural.

She went to Pueblo to paint on the wall in the mid-1980s – and she stayed. In 1991, she became the volunteer coordinator of the project.

Ramu said she painted on more than 30 murals on the old levee. A few were solo works, some were collaborative and some were with her students from the Pueblo School for Arts and Sciences, where she taught art for 22 years. She estimates she took about 400 eighth graders to the levee for various projects.

While working on her first piece around 1986, “a storm came along and washed me and my paint off the wall” and onto a bike trail below, she said. She was helping another painter one May when she fell into the river, then brimming with spring runoff. When she bobbed up, her friends threw her a rope and dragged her out.

The hazards didn’t deter her.

“It’s an amazing thing to do,” she said. “I really enjoyed being out there by myself. Fall is the best time to paint – it’s not so hot. I’ve even painted out there in December.” 

The levee mural in 1995 made the Guinness World Records book as the largest continuous mural, measuring 178,200 square feet, according to a 2014 Colorado Public Radio story. Painting and touch-ups continued even after that milestone was achieved.

Demolition, tears and a new canvas

The record stood until the art was jackhammered away in 2016 as the Conservancy District replaced the aging and cracked levee.

Ramu recalls standing along the trail on the opposite side of the river with other artists as they tearfully watched the demolition.

“I had to take off work two days that week,” she said. “I’d just go down and sit by the river and cry.”

The deterioration of the concrete and sheer weight of the slabs made it impossible to save the art, although a portion of one of Ramu’s pieces, “The Corn Maiden,” now rests at a trailhead near Main Street.

A Bob Marley mural along the Arkansas River levee in Pueblo is shown in this file photograph. The concrete of the old levee, and its murals, were crushed to create road grade material atop the revamped levee. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The dozens of other paintings were crumbled into the dusty-gray gravel drive atop the levee that today’s artists are permitted to drive on when they are painting their panels.

As the levee was rebuilt, talk turned to recreating the mural.

There were naysayers and disagreements over how artists would be approved and permitted. In fact, the guidelines still are a work in progress – for example, the initial $100 application fee (of which $50 would have been refunded after completion) has been reduced to $10, Ramu said.

The Pueblo Conservancy District has the final say but has enlisted local arts organizations and Ramu to guide the project.

“I have worked with the conservancy since 1990,” Ramu said. “I’m one of those people who run in with a torch and say I can make this work.”

The Conservancy District suggests murals that depict such things as community history, ethnic heritage, natural beauty, wildlife and cultural history. Advertisements are prohibited.

“The conservancy doesn’t want it to look like graffiti, but there’s a fine line in judging what’s street art, levee art, graffiti,” Ramu said. “I say let’s just do some great art and let it be up to date, let it reflect the world right now.”

Cynthia Ramu volunteers with the Pueblo Conservancy District, working as a liaison, coordinating and helping artists get their designs approved. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Artists must submit a scale rendering of their proposed design in color, which has irritated some artists who want to improvise, she said.

Ramu encourages artists to “put something out here you’re going to be proud of because they’re going to outlast you. Share your passion.”

While a local committee reviews applications, Ramu volunteers her time to work with artists to help them develop ideas. And she offers plenty of tips about painting at the site, getting sponsors and donations, collaborating with other artists and borrowing climbing gear (including her own). She steers artists to places such as Pueblo Paint Recyclers, where they often can get discounted or free paint, actively seeks paint and gear donations and has created a fundraising page to pay for paint and safety gear for the artists. 

“I’m feeling like a cheerleader,” she said. “I’m a coach. I’m a mentor. I get texts in the middle of night. But it’s all fantastic.”

Painting begins

Designs from about a dozen artists have been approved, and four started work the first week of October. Ramu expects that artists can work through the winter when the weather is sunny and warm, and is thrilled that many pieces will be finished in time for the formal levee dedication, which will coincides next summer with a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the flood.

With a more concentrated effort than the first time around, Ramu believes they could recapture the world record (now held by South Korea) in two years.

Eisemann said she applied to paint after a friend told her about the levee mural. She was thrilled to be the first one to add color to the concrete. She chose a mandala, a geometric figure that represents the universe in Hinduism and Buddhism, because the bright colors “look fantastic from far away.”

People on the trail on the opposite side of the river appeared to agree as they cheered her on as she painted. Other artists, too, said they were getting plenty of encouragement from trail users.

Most artists literally must “learn the ropes” in their first hours on the wall.

Pueblo-based artist Celeste Velazquez, supported by climbing ropes and harnesses, lays down paint on a mural she’s painting along the Arkansas River levee. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“There’s definitely a physical aspect to it,” said Eisemann, who borrowed a climbing harness and rope from her boyfriend. “It’s full body art – I started feeling it in my back and then in other muscles. It’s a workout.”

Kalyn Connolly agreed. The 23-year-old drives from Aurora on her days off work at a restaurant to paint her 25-feet-by-25-feet mural of a deer with flowers bursting from its antlers.

“I was surprised at how sore I got – my calves were burning,” she said. 

This is her second mural, and the first was much smaller, 15 feet by 15 feet and not on a slant.

“For this one I had to make a grid,” she said. “To work, I hold something with paint in it, hold the brush in my mouth and go down the rope. It’s been a really fun challenge, though. I feel like Spider-Man or something running down the wall.”

The artists are particularly excited to be collaborating on a project that is bigger than their own art, and they encourage other artists to join in. Individual paintings are 24 feet high and between 24 feet and 120 feet long.

And they’re already talking about their “next piece.” Ramu was hesitant to commit to painting on the new wall, saying she’s “over 60” and has chipped knee bones. But when she’s out there with the artists, she muses, “it offers so many opportunities to be creative.”

“We’re part of a collective,” Eisemann added. “There’s nothing else like it.”

Thomas Garbiso navigates the 45-degree pitch of the Arkansas River levee while painting a mural. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)(Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Pueblo native Thomas Jeremy Garbiso, 42, said he missed his opportunity to paint on the old levee after being approved to do so in 2000, but wasn’t going to let that happen again.

“It’s a big thing for the community,” said Garbiso, who works full time for AT&T but has been drawing as long as he can remember. He created a Facebook fundraiser to help pay for painting supplies, and friends have chipped in about $800, he said.

His mural is a quintessential Colorado scene – mountains and sunset as if you’re heading west on Interstate 70. The vibrancy of the colors is the key for him.

“The levee mural will bring out the art side of Pueblo,” he said. “We’re laying a strip of color downtown. I want to help show color and beauty and life to Pueblo.

“When it’s done, imagine everything side-by-side and how beautiful and colorful that will be.”

Find the guidelines and application for participating in the Pueblo Levee Mural Project here

Follow along with the murals’ progress on Facebook:
The project page is here
The artists’ page is here

Here are some tips from artists:

Wear sturdy shoes
Learn how to use climbing ropes, keep them out of wet paint
Use a handled paint holder
Seek a sponsor or do a fundraiser to help defray costs

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.