Mural takes shape in St. John

Gale Rose
Artist Inga Ojala adds features to mural that celebrates William Bickerton establishing the town of St. John. The mural will feature Bickerton, his wife Dorothy, children (drawn with community children's faces), wagons, horses, native grasses and animals, a Native American and even a tornado.

An old, blank wall in St. John is being transformed into a history lesson as a gifted artist brings the history of the founding of the town to life on a canvas of mortar.

Artist Inga Ojala climbs a scaffold and draws in the likeness of William Bickerton, a member of the The Church of Christ, that founded the town in 1875.

The wall is roughly 15 feet tall and 55 feet wide. The mural will be a depiction of Bickerton and his wife Dorothy arriving at Ion Valley, the site where St. John would be established, Ojala said.

The year was 1875 and Ojala has done extensive research to make sure the clothing, wagons, wildlife, prairie chickens, horned lizards, insects, reptiles and plants, including native grasses, are correct for the time period.

Ojala said the painting will have three wagons with the Bickertons leading the way. Children will be in the wagon train and their faces will resemble those of current children in St. John. There will be people on horseback, a Native American waving at the wagons, sunlight (in glow in the dark paint) shining on where they are going, the Rattlesnake River and even a tornado.

Ojala’s goal is to create a painting like a coloring book that teaches the history of the town.

“I’m taking history and spreading it around,” said Ojala who is a self taught artist and has done murals across the county including a work in the Dodge House in Dodge City.

Some of the original beams protrude through the wall and Ojala will incorporate them into the painting.

Ojala is using an exterior latex paint the dries quickly and will hold up in Kansas weather. A poly crylic matt finish will help protect the mural from Kansas sunlight.

Some portions of the mural will receive 10 coats. The bottom 30 inches of the mural will be metal panels that will blend in with the original steel column on the front of the building. Limestone will also be added at the corner.

Assisting Ojala in the project is Dylan Hoffman who is finishing out the rough west corner with brick and mortar go make a smooth corner.

Mike Casey of Casey’s Cow Town in Dodge City is supplying the scaffold for the project.

The project came about when St. John citizen David Robinson, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ, approached economic development back in October 2019 about creating a mural at Second and Main in St. John to honor the memory of his father, Alex Robinson, who actually knew Bickerton. Economic development owns the wall, said Carolyn Dunn, executive director of Stafford County Economic Development.

Some of the funding for the project would come from memorial funds for Alex while other funding was made possible through an artistic grant.

“The Kansas Creative Arts Industry Commission gave a $7,500 grant,” Dunn said.

The Church of Jesus holds the money from the Alex Robinson memorials.

Economic Development established a steering committee that put out a call for interested artists to paint the mural. The topic of the mural was the settlement of St. John. There was a rise north of town and when the settlers approached, they saw the area where St. John is located now and the mural was to capture seeing the utopian location.

Ojala’s credentials impressed the committee and she was hired to complete the painting. There were communications and modifications to the concept before Ojala finalized the design and moved forward on the project.

“I think we will all be very proud and it will be very professionally done,” Dunn said.

The wall was brick and very rough so a layer of mortar was applied to create a better painting surface. The mortar will allow for more detail in the painting and extend the life of the building.

Ojala started painting on March 23 and is moving quickly.

“Inga started on Monday (March 23) this week. She has just started and she is moving fast. The wall is already looking significantly different,” Dunn said.

At this rate, Ojala plans on completing the mural in just two weeks, well ahead of the committee desired date on Jubilee on Memorial day weekend.

The mural has drawn lots of interest. People are walking and driving by to get a look. Besides improving the look of the neighborhood, it is giving people something new that doesn’t have to do with the COVID-19 crisis.

“The timing of this couldn’t be better. We need a morale booster,” Dunn said.

The Steering Committee members were community members David Robinson, Amber Turner, Pam Turner, Brian Brown, Carol Long and four high school students: Damian Rios, Mackenzie Hacker, Destiny Talbert and Nevaeh Haney.