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Floodwall Murals by Robert Dafford

The riverfront cities of Covington and Paducah feature extensive public art by muralist Robert Dafford.

“Robert Dafford does a magnificent thing to decorate an otherwise utilitarian thing called floodwalls, necessary though they are.” says Karl Lietzenmayer, historian and board member with the Kenton County Historical Society. “It’s made them live and it’s made them a thing of beauty all [along] the Ohio.”

The murals depict scenes and people of the region throughout history. They’re sequenced chronologically so that passers-by can essentially walk through time.

“Being a historic artist requires a whole other level of skills,” says historian and author Paul Tenkotte. “It means you need to know how to research the costumes of the time, the architecture of the time, the transportation and everything else. And if you don’t get it right, it would subtract from the historical integrity.”

Once the subject is selected and researched for accuracy, the next challenge is transferring the scene to a large-scale mural. Dafford and his team use different techniques, including transferring a smaller version of the image using a grid system, or using a projection on the wall.

“Small paintings are really finger and wrist,” says Dafford. “When you’re painting a 40-foot building, you’re using your whole body. When you’re working outside on a location, the light is different from what you imagined.”

Dafford’s murals encompass a wide variety of subjects. In Paducah, a mural depicts Boy Scout Troop 1, one of the country’s longest continually running troops. The mural spans across time, showing updates in Boy Scout uniform and camping gear as the viewer looks from left to right. Another shows a scene from the flood of 1937, inspired by a photograph published in National Geographic.

There are painful moments in history seen in the murals as well. In Covington, one wall shows Margaret Garner, a woman who escaped with her family from a brutal life of slavery in Kentucky by crossing the frozen Ohio River. When U.S. Marshals cornered the family, Garner killed her young daughter rather than see her sent into enslavement. At that time, the tragic event highlighted the horrors of the American institution of slavery. More recently, it has inspired art, including Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved.

Whether touching or troubling or simply scenic, Dafford’s murals are a distinctive and engaging depiction of regional history that are available to all along the public floodwalls.

“Robert Dafford is a master in being able to take a moment in time and the energy of that moment, and being able to capture that and convey the message of that moment, and he does it over and over again in Paducah’s span of murals,” says Fowler Black, sales director with the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Anything that can excite people and make them enthusiastic about history and art and architecture, all at once, that’s an amazing gift to have as an artist and to be able to pass on to future generations.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life #2523, which originally aired on August 15, 2020. Watch the full episode.