Labarron Lewis paints history onto a highway wall in Mobile


“I started this project about two months ago. The people of Africatown committee saw the work I did in the past and chose me to work on this project. I made a living doing murals and backgrounds for Olan Mills, Lifetouch and School Pictures Incorporated. I got up in age and can’t do it on a regular basis anymore. Painting this mural of the Clotilde is an honor and means a lot to me because this might be one of the ships that my ancestors came on. My last name is Lewis and Cudjoe Lewis is the last slave that came on this ship so I feel like we might be related.

(The Clotilde is the last slave ship that brought the last slaves to the U.S. It landed in Mobile. Africatown is a historic community in Mobile that was settled by the West Africans.)

They gave me pictures of what the ship might have looked like. I had to make up the sky and create a light source. I try to paint the same time every day in the same light because different light or times changes the dynamics–the concept and color, the shadows and the bounce. I come out when there is a slight overcast and the sun is going down. I don’t use any black on the ship. When you want the painting to be colorful, you stay away from black. All of the black is the cargo inside the ship.

I started by making a pattern for it on paper. The ship is as wide as it is tall and I had to cheat because I only have 15 feet of wall, it looks shorter because of the slant. I had to improvise to make the ship look more dynamic and finally got it right on the pattern and put it on the wall. As soon as I got it up there, about five big trucks came flying through and knocked the pattern down. I had to get my yardstick and chalk and freehand everything. It knew how to do it, it just took a little more time. I didn’t want to have to guess on anything.

Looking at it, you don’t realize how physical painting that wall is, but the wall is slanted and I had to lay my ladder down and push away to paint. I pushed away with my left hand and painted with my right hand and pushed away with my right hand and painted with my left hand. I kept moving the ladder from side to side and that was stressful and hard on my arms and legs. I could only work on 2 feet of area at one time and I am used to working on 3 or 4 feet at once. If the wall had been vertical, it would have been much easier. This is an important project for me and but I am 63 and wish I could have done this in my younger years so I could handle the physical part better. People have loved it and honk when they drive by. Most people have never seen a live person painting before.

This is an impressionist painting. I am not painting the water or the sky, I am painting an impression of the water and the sky. It looks nice close-up, but I am painting for you to stand back and look at this from a distance. I take a picture of it from over there before I come to see what I need to do and when I finish each day to see what I need to do next time. Just like life, you need to take a step back and take inventory of yourself. Painting is the same way because you might be going in the wrong direction and need to stop and make a change. The only way you can see that is by looking from a distance to make sure you are going in the right direction. Just watch out for the cars.”

“What happened to the Clotilde?”

“After the slave trade was over, there was a bet made that one of the captains could bring back a load of slaves and not get caught. He got the slaves off the ship at Mobile Bay. He took the ship up the river and broke it up. That is the history that was given to me and I heard it more than once, so it may be true.

I researched and learned more history before I started painting. On the land above the mural wall is a chimney that was part of the house of Peter Lee, who this street is named for. His family was a royal family who sold the Africans to the merchant ships. Somehow he got caught in the mix and became a slave and was brought over here. He wasn’t supposed to be sold but I guess his family learned what it felt like to have a loved one go to a foreign place and be a slave.

Art is second nature to me. In third grade, I was staying with my grandparents for the summer and my mother sent me a paint by numbers set and I have been painting ever since. I didn’t need to paint by the numbers. I went to the University of Alabama and finished in commercial art. You can’t cultivate a seed that is not in the soil. You can teach theory and concepts, but God has to put it in you. If you can master light, medium and dark, you can be a good artist. God keeps me going. I love the Lord and want to learn more. If you seek, you shall find. I love knowledge.

The hardest thing I have been through is loving someone who didn’t love me back. I wanted them to love me, but it wasn’t there. I have learned to accept things like that. A man is not a man and a woman is not a woman until they learn how to overcome that obstacle. Overcome that and you are ready to soar. I don’t put a lot of faith in human beings because we all make mistakes. People think I am weird because I dig a little deeper but I don’t let someone else validate who I am.”


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