An abandoned building with broken windows may seem nothing more than an ugly blemish. But to a mural artist, it’s a beautiful opportunity, a waiting canvas.
Two St. Louis muralists are nearing completion of the first phase of their project to transform the vacant Cotton Belt Freight Depot into a kind of welcome sign for commuters heading into St. Louis on the new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge.
The 750-foot-long mural consists of brightly colored bird forms boasting 60-foot wingspans. It’s called “Migrate.”
“Lots of people migrate here every day,” mural artist Nita Turnage explained. “People migrate into the city as they cross the bridge and a lot of birds migrate up and down the river. And there’s a lot of wildlife coming through.”
‘I’m trying to paint a mural, would you support it?’
Between 2010 and 2012, the grounds around the Cotton Belt building were occupied by St. Louis’ Tent City homeless residents. Even now, at least one food truck comes by once a week to feed the homeless who still gather beneath the former hub for Southern cotton shipments, built in 1911.
It’s been more than a half-century since the building at 1400 North 1st St. near the entrance to the Riverfront Trail, has been the site of any business activity. But in recent years, skateboarders and graffiti writers have left their marks.
Turnage and her husband Hap Phillips came up with the bird motif, a common theme in their work. Their own history with the building goes back a decade or more.
“We used to live nearby up on North Broadway in a warehouse,” Turnage said. “We’d walk our dogs here and we’d see so much potential.”
Tom Nagel, who has been involved with the mural project from the beginning, also has a history with the Cotton Belt building. In high school, Nagel used to come down to the area with a family friend, who co-owns the building, and the co-owner's son, Nagel’s friend.
Two years ago, Nagel, a communications professional, launched the mural effort with the Creative Exchange Lab - Center for Architecture & Design St. Louis. The bulk of the $23,000 raised came from the Convention and Visitors Commission and the St. Louis Regional Chamber. But $3,000 came from a Rally Saint Louis crowdfunding effort, fueled by Nagel’s once-a-week visits to the site.
“People come down here for wedding photos or graduation photos or just urban exploration,” Nagel said. “So I made up 3,000 little business cards saying, ‘I’m trying to paint a mural, would you support it?’”
‘It’s changed my life’
The money that’s been raised is only enough to allow Turnage and Phillips to cover both ends and the middle of the building, using just over 100 gallons of paint. The space in between will feature small birds flitting toward the completed parts. This Sunday from 2-4 p.m., the artists will hold a fundraising event to buy more paint. For a $10 donation, they'll paint a signature bird on an article of clothing.
They hope to finish this phase by or just after Saturday, Oct. 11, the date of the couple’s arts festival called Artica. Since 2002, Artica has been a yearly celebration of self-expression for adults and children. It includes a ceremonial burning of an Our Lady of Artica effigy. But don’t compare it to Nevada’s Burning Man.
“Love ya, Burning Man, but we don’t like to call ourselves that,” Turnage said. “They have 30,000 to 40,000 people show up. Ours is very community and family oriented.”
After this project, Turnage and Phillips aren’t sure what they’ll do next. But they can’t imagine it will be anything near this scale. The idea of going back to painting a mural on someone’s dining room wall now is dwarfed by the scale of this 450,000-square-foot effort.
“[I’d like to ask them] ‘Can’t we do the whole outside of your house and the neighbor’s house?” Phillips laughed.
The Cotton Belt project has been life-altering. The couple has learned to drive a boom-lift, met new people and enjoyed a stunning view of the Mississippi River.
“It’s changed my life,” Turnage said. “Every morning I get to get up and say, ‘This is my job.’”
Note: An earlier version of this story left out the work of the Creative Exchange Lab - Center for Architecture & Design St. Louis.
On Monday, we'll take a look at some other recent mural work in St. Louis and talk with artists about how murals contribute to the growth and well-being of a city.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL