Photos by Taylor West
“At least 50 years.”
That is how long artist Gary Bielefeld says the restored iconic mirrored Kentucky mural will last.
But, Bielefeld says, if it doesn’t, they will have to come graveside to tell him he was wrong.
He’s speaking, of course, about the mirror mural in the shape of Kentucky that greets travelers as they arrive to and depart from Owensboro across the Glover Cary Bridge.
Over six thousand people travel the bridge, and Bielefeld said there was never a fender-bender on this restoration, but there was on the last.
Of course, those viewing the 110- by 42-foot work of art do not realize what the artist had to do in creating the original and restoring it now.
“We had to call the state on the first, because of reflections, and since it was on the east side of the building, we could,” he said.
And after spending so much time in the same place– three years for the restoration – Bielefeld knows the high spots and “perfect times” to see the sun reflect.
The first time, Bielefeld spent four months working on the mural because the City of Owensboro wanted it done quickly. Volunteers from the Sigma Epsilon fraternity at Kentucky Wesleyan College, Bielefeld’s alma mater, helped cut the glass and stick it on the wall of the former Progress Printing building.
“I gave them a 15-minute glass-cutting class and some got good at it. Others were good at the scaffolding, and some were good at sticking it on the wall,” he said. “In that time, being artistic went away.”
During the restoration, the pandemic affected his ability to get volunteers to help, but occasionally people would bring their children or grandchildren and he would allow them to put pieces on the wall, artistically.
He said he really enjoyed the “regulars” who came to check on him, visit and tell stories, including Ms. Frantz, the now-owner of the building at 319 E. Frederica St. One of the visitors can be spotted all over town on his bike, and he would often do chores for Bielefeld to earn money.
During the restoration, and because of his interactions with so many different people, Bielefeld spent time thinking about the homeless and transient population and thinks there is more that can be done to solve the housing population, but he doesn’t have a clear idea yet other than getting the population out of harm’s way of those who prey on them.
Bielefeld always dreams big, and the creations of those dreams are larger-than-life. After finishing the first mural in 1983, he was approached by another local printing company that wanted “something big.”
“We turned their building into a whole printing press,” he said. “I went to the farm supply store and used hog feeders as rollers on the front and a hog feeder to look like the plug…making something look realistic takes creativity. All details must be enlarged, and the items have to be recognizable.”
Bielefeld has also created other local “traffic stoppers,” like the Thriftway Lumber tool belt that took three months to create and was installed in 1987. The 40-foot-by-25-foot belt was created in his studio. Pieces of styrofoam were laminated and then taken outside and put on sawhorses to shape them with chainsaws before moving back inside for the smoothing and Bondo painting process. Each was put on the wall individually.
The toolbelt was created from thick truck tarp that Bielefeld said looked like a wooden roller coaster. Inside was a sawblade, hammer, folding yardstick and drill bit.
“That was the hardest to cut out as a masonry bit,” he said. “The tip is different, but it spirals the same. Once the owners saw this, they knew it was going to be good.”
The tool belt withstood rain and thunderstorms and even the tornado with minimal damage before being taken down by the new owners in 2011.
In 1991, he created the giant Wetzel’s grocery sack, a 40-foot-tall bag of interchangeable groceries like Pepsi, Field hot dogs, and Zesta crackers. There was a ladder that would let the artist out in a six-by-six-by-eight-foot-tall bread bag.
“Companies would pay Wetzel’s for the product that went in the bag,” he said. “People would notice it and especially when we were swapping out items that were being craned in.”
The Wetzel’s bag was taken down in 2000.
Other local sculptures by Bielefeld that have been in Owensboro include the fork that was at Daily Delicious, the ribbon on The Baker’s Rack car and “The Big Brush” at Paint Headquarters.
Bielefeld is now working on a smaller scale – much smaller. A miniature 1,500-square-foot model train set was his latest project. He built and painted miniature buildings, exterior details and people that were ⅜-inch tall. He also did the electrical wiring underneath.
One last addition to the Kentucky mosaic will be installed soon, and then it will be completed. Lights will be added to the top mirrored pieces to make it resemble “A Starry Night” because of the swirls and three-pieces-thick dimensional mirror added to the top.
“When you stand in the lot, you really get the impact of the size,” Bielefeld said.