American Legion mural drawing praise
DANVILLE — It's still a few days away from being finished.
But a colorful mural of a military honor guard being painted on the front of the American Legion Post 210 building, at 201 Prospect Place, is already drawing lots of "oohs" and "aahs."
Officers hope it and a second mural of the American Legion seal, to be painted on the building's west side, will also attract something the organization needs: new, younger members.
Current membership stands at 515, said Commander Tom Morse. He would like to see it grow to at least 700.
"Our older gentlemen are leaving us. ... We're doing everything we can think of to get younger crowds here," Morse said.
That includes commissioning the eye-catching art work, he added. "This is exactly what we wanted to do: bring attention and honor to service members and veterans of all five military branches and to brighten this place up. When you're coming from the south, you can't help but see it — and know exactly what we're all about."
Morse and other members said they couldn't be more pleased with Mike Harper, the Danville artist behind the mural.
Harper took a short break from his work this week to talk about the mural and how he turned his passion into a business, Art as a Mission.
A Georgetown native, Harper doesn't recall a time when he wasn't copying pictures from his favorite comic books or sketching on something — notebooks, homework assignments, even his brother's report card.
He earned a bachelor's degree from Savannah College of Art and Design.
"Strangely enough it wasn't for painting," said Harper, who got a degree in video production. While he made a number of videos, he eventually devoted more time to painting — on canvas, T-shirts, signs and brick walls.
"Everybody has something they're passionate about, that they'll do whether they get paid or not. Art is that for me. I'm just blessed that I have a chance to do it as my job," said Harper, who learned how to paint largely by studying the works of many, from Dutch master Johannes Vemeer to American painter Todd Schorr to local artists.
In 2000, Harper established Art as Mission, a mural and sign painting business. "It's not only my mission ... to do it for me, but to bring it to everyone else," he said, explaining the name.
For years, Harper had to work as a graphic artist, CD store manager and third-shift grocery store manager, among other things, to pay the bills. He recalled a time last winter when he questioned whether he should continue trying to make his passion his full-time profession.
"The cold is when work is always at its slowest," said Harper, who had no jobs coming in. "You can't really paint outdoors when it's zero degrees. I remember saying, 'Maybe it's time to forget this.'"
Harper didn't realize his 9-year-old daughter, Marlee, had overheard him until she let him have it.
"She said, 'If you quit this, what does that teach me about doing the things I want to achieve?' That really fired me up," recalled Harper, who went full-time this year.
Some of his mural work can be seen locally, including on the MAF salon, Georgetown Foods and American Legion Post 203 buildings, all in Georgetown.
A member of the Walldogs since they came to Danville in 2010, Harper also painted the two baseball players in the Walldogs Danville Stadium mural on the Habitat for Humanity ReStore building in downtown Danville.
Roughly 22 feet wide and 15 feet high, the Post 210 mural depicts a seven-member honor guard representing the five military branches and their seals.
Harper sketched the design on a computer and printed it on a transparency. Then he projected the image onto the side of the wall at night and traced a rough outline with a black Sharpie.
The last few days, he's been applying Novacolor acrylic paint designed for outdoor murals to bring his mural to life.
"Some people get the wrong idea: 'Oh, it's like a big coloring book,'" he said. "It's a lot more detailed than that. I'm a detail junkie, I guess. I like to get in and make it look real."
When he's finished in a few days, Harper will paint a 5-foot-by-5-foot image of the organization's seal on the wall facing Jackson Street.
Harper — whose paternal grandfather, Merle Pepper, was an Army Korean War vet, and maternal grandfather was Air Force vet Guy Warren, whom he never met — took on the project at a discount to honor the post and the people that the mural respresents. He said it has been a labor of love.
"What I've really enjoyed is the veterans will come up and start chatting, and you hear all of their stories," he said. "The more of that you hear, the more you want to put into the work. It's been inspiring, and it makes me want to make it that much better.
"You want them to think, 'Yeah, this is us.'"