Over 12 years, Ira Watkins’ mural of Martin Luther King Jr. has survived floods and a spray paint attack.
But now it’s getting a restoration with a touch of the master’s hand.
Watkins, a Waco native who lives in San Francisco nowadays, is back in town for a couple of weeks to repaint the mural that takes up all sides of an old Interurban Railway bridge piling on the east bank of the Brazos River.
On Friday afternoon, he worked alongside Waco Cultural Arts founder Doreen Ravenscroft, refreshing the faded colors with vibrant new acrylic paint. The $3,500 project, including paint and an honorarium for Watkins, is funded by Neighborworks Waco and City Center Waco.
A north wind blew whitecaps on the Brazos on Friday afternoon, and a pair of blue herons flew into a cottonwood tree, squawking as Watkins and Ravenscroft consulted on paint colors.
“Let’s use the dark green here for shadow,” Watkins said, pointing a long, paint-splattered finger at the depiction of steps leading up to the civil rights leader’s podium.
The mural wasn’t in terrible shape, considering what it’s been through. Several floods, most recently in 2015 and 2016, have submerged the lower half of the mural. In July, an unknown vandal with a can of red spray paint made X’s over Martin Luther King Jr.’s mouth.
But by that point, Ravenscroft had already been in discussions with Watkins for more than a year about repainting the mural.
“It wasn’t the vandalism we tracked him down for,” she said. “We tracked him down because of the flooding.”
After the vandalism attack, Ravenscroft and other volunteers used a combination of Method shower cleaner and turpentine to soak and remove the red paint.
Watkins took the damage in stride.
“I hated to hear that,” he said, but added with a laugh: “At the same time, it’s more publicity.”
Purpose through art
Watkins, 76, has found recognition and life purpose through his art after a hard life with episodes of drugs and prison.
His folk art paintings, which were on exhibit this year at San Francisco’s Tenderloin Museum, depict both stark injustice and the joys of community, from lynchings to riverbank fishing.
In 2004, businessman Donnie Wilkinson and County Commissioner Lester Gibson commissioned Watkins to paint the MLK mural on the Brazos. The cost was $1,600.
“Everyone thinks the city paid me to do this,” Watkins said. “I don’t tell them no different.”
But he said the mural helped him land new commissions in San Francisco, including a four-story mural celebrating the Tenderloin Community Garden.
“I had a day named after me in Waco,” Watkins said. “On my resume, when people see that, well, I’m somebody.”
For Watkins, coming back to work on the Martin Luther King Jr. mural is a labor of love.
“There’s a lot of negative stuff in the environment right now,” he said. “I think every so often God sends a message and person to convey that message of love and peace. Martin Luther King was the person who was chosen this time. Who the next messenger will be, who knows? It don’t have to be a man. It could be a woman or child. Something positive is going to spring from a negative environment. You’ve got to have hope.”