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Painting with a purpose: Kalmar Nyckel shipyard mural unveiled

Thanks to the efforts of a new arts program that serves individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues, a massive mural facing the Kalmar Nyckel shipyard paints the picture of more than 350 years of history on Wilmington’s Seventh Street Peninsula.

The Delaware Heritage Mural traces the history of Wilmington’s Seventh Street Peninsula.

The Delaware Heritage Mural traces the history of Wilmington’s Seventh Street Peninsula.

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The mural, stretching more than 200 feet along the side of a warehouse once marred by graffiti, is the work of the Creative Vision Factory, created two years ago as part of the state’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve and increase the number of programs offered for Delawareans with mental illnesses. Ten participants in the program — most of them “mental health consumers,” according to CVF executive director Michael Kalmbach — worked this spring with three designers and five volunteers to create a visual chronology, starting with the landing of the Swedes who sailed on the original Kalmar Nyckel in 1638.

“We’re trying to revitalize the area. One of the ways to do that is to beautify an ugly warehouse wall, and there’s no better way to do that than with a mural,” says Sam Heed, education director for the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, which paid CVF $26,000 to do the work.

The mural was the idea of Wilmington real estate executive H. Hunter Lott III, chairman of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation’s board of directors, who reached out to Kalmbach’s organization.

It turned out to be a perfect match.

The muralists were intrigued by the history of the area, and paid close attention to detail in their work, creating a piece of art that brings history to life, Heed says. “We’ve got people in the city who know nothing about this. Or they know something, like that we were founded by the Swedes, but they don’t know why, or they don’t know how we connect to the Dutch,” he says.

The mural, Heed says, “is a quick interpretive expression of what we’re here for. It tells a complex story, with multiple layers, that keeps on going up to the present. It’s not just 1638, it’s not just today, it’s not just about the Jackson & Sharp plant,” where ships and railroad cars were built from 1875 until shortly after the end of World War II. “These are inspiring stories, stories that aren’t well known,” he adds.

Images on the mural depict, among other things, Peter Minuit, the colony’s founder, talking with the native Americans the Swedes met upon their arrival, aerial and side views of Fort Christina and Old Swedes Church, and the various names given the Christina River over the past 375 years. One panel shows the Kalmar Nyckel in full sail in the Caribbean, another salutes the river as a key crossing point to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Moving into the 20th century, the mural pays homage to the shipyard, the ferries that crossed the Delaware River to New Jersey before the Delaware Memorial Bridge was built, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit in 1938 to mark the 300th anniversary of the settlement. At the far right is an image of the replica ship, with portraits of its two captains, Lauren Morgens and Sharon Dounce.

Cathy Parsells, executive director of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, is pleased with the Creative Vision Factory’s effort. “We like working with them a lot. They have demonstrated to themselves, and to others, that they can take on a big project,” she says.

The mural, she says, “is a fantastic piece of art. It makes it a joy to drive to work every day.”

The work represented a major challenge for the participants. Michael Solomon, who was homeless and suffering from depression when he learned about the Creative Vision Factory, was volunteering at a homeless shelter in St. Louis when Kalmbach called and invited him to return to work on the mural. “Michael said he had something big for me, but I didn’t think it was anything big like this,” Solomon says.

Participating in the mural project, he adds, “has helped me become more independent, become a more productive member of society … and make some history too.”

Anne Yoncha, a Brandywine High School and University of Delaware graduate, who helped design the mural, found the work exhilarating. She gained satisfaction from seeing area residents and truck drivers making deliveries stop, say hello and check out the work in progress.

“It brought the people together and it was a cool way to get to know the neighborhood,” she says.

The Creative Vision Factory, meanwhile, has been able to use its success with the mural to find new projects for participants in its program.

Kalmbach says the group has been hired to create an indoor holiday-themed mural for the Superior Electric Co. in Wilmington. Next on the agenda is a plan to create an affiliated contracting business, likely to be named Creative Vision Works that would provide jobs for CVF members by taking on residential and commercial painting projects.

“This project is birthing a whole new company, a whole new initiative,” he says.