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A Mural by Another Name: A Visual Ode to the Time of Coal

By: Brian Evans & Liza Ezbiansky From: June 20th, 2024

There are many things that one might consider when purchasing a home: location, affordability, condition, and potential come to mind. Sometimes we are lucky enough to find a home that provides these values and also inspires us. A feature of the Craig Mansion, located at 24 W Broadway in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, that provided such inspiration is the large, windowless portion of the west-facing side of the red brick building--a section which until recently didn’t have any distinctive features.

As the home's current custodians, we feel connected to the area and the town's history, which inspires much of the work we undertake. We are inspired not only by its distant American history but also by the modern legacy of artists and creative people who have contributed to the magic of Jim Thorpe. To us, the mansion wall presented an opportunity to commission a mural that honors coal miners and others whose lives and work were the foundation of this and other American towns. It wasn't until we were introduced to professional illustrator and muralist Denton Burrows that the project truly took shape and came to fruition.

“Eastern Pennsylvania and its rich industrial history have always been a story and historical study near to my heart,” Denton said, “ever since I received my BA in Fine Arts from Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Bethlehem's steel mill enchanted me at first sight, occupied early drawings of mine, and many years later inspired the completion of numerous murals in eastern Pennsylvania, specifically Bethlehem, Catasauqua, Scranton, and now Jim Thorpe, that

deal with its rich industrial history, from steel to iron to agriculture to coal.”

We spoke with several artists about the project, but Denton's unique perspective and passion for the area were evident. In his artist statement for this project, Denton told us, “As a muralist, it has always been important to me to pay attention to the places I am painting. I like to learn about their history, and even if a mural is not commissioned to historical specifications, I try to incorporate the place and its prideful, important visual elements or story into my subject matter and composition.”

We asked Denton to stay with us over the course of the project, which took about seven full days to complete. Denton worked long hours, often from morning into late evening, using a projector to help track the image. Some days were slowed by rain, providing time to spend together. Denton was enchanted with the town, and we were equally captivated by him. His experience truly came through in the art.

While the town’s history is well known, this building's history is not. Built circa 1857, the property was purchased in 1869 by Belle Craig, daughter of the superintendent of the LC&N and wife of Allen Craig, who became a District Attorney for Carbon County, a Pennsylvania State Congressman, and a lead prosecutor in the notorious “Molly Maguires” trial. The mansion was likely finished in the late 1880s and remained in the Craig family until 1924.

In commissioning the painting, our goal was to provide as much artistic freedom to Denton as possible. However, the design had to be carefully considered to ensure it maintained the town's basic character and harmonized with the community. Through a series of phone calls and exchanges of ideas and early concept drawings, a design for the final work was developed: Landowners who controlled the railroads and mines are most celebrated today. Many of the buildings here were commissioned by and are named after them. The Packer Mansions and passenger steam train are prime attractions. We wanted the mural to honor the miners and their families who physically built and lived in this town, not the owners of industry.

We were also excited about the idea of the mural being in grayscale with only splashes of color. “[It’s] a visual way to convey a sense of historical rendering, like a black and white photo,” Denton says. “The light mint green and beige that adorns much of the mansion's trim served as the perfect background color to complement the grayscale and tie into the mansion’s aesthetic without overpowering the subject matter and gray tones.” Denton brought our ideas to life in ways that exceeded our expectations. “I have always enjoyed visualizing connections in my work,” Denton tells us, “things that are related, things that are all integrated parts of a whole. So, I decided to stack these essential elements of the coal mining process and story in a surreal way that results in a visual puzzle of discovery.”

Denton describes the mural, from bottom to top: The ground is scattered with mined anthracite, some of which has spilled over the tunnel trolley stuffed with a haul. Some falls from the large piece held up by a miner’s hand in revelry of discovery after a dark day’s work in the tunnel built into the side of the mountain held up by logs. The miner firmly rests his pick axe on his shoulder and stands proudly overlooking West Broadway and the town,which he is helping to create by mining its natural bounty to fuel the industrial revolution.The smoke stacks of industry and progress to come billow smoke in the left distance. Upon his helmet, a visual staple of early miners, rests a canary. These precious birds were used to help detect oxygen levels in the mines and therefore were watchful angels to the miners, hence the halo above the bird’s head. Adding to the steampunk aesthetic, the bird is connected to and adorned with its own oil lamp to help light the way. The only pop of color lies in the yellow of the miner’s steampunk eyeglass, the light on his miner’s helmet, and the flame from the oil lamp and eyeglass on the canary. I chose to illuminate these elements as their light, both literally and metaphorically, was essential in the birth, perseverance, and progress of Jim Thorpe, Eastern Pennsylvania, and America as a whole.

In some ways, we like to think of the man pictured as the fabled John Kehoe, the convicted Molly Maguire conspirator who is storied to have helped lead the local mine workers' uprising in Jim Thorpe, depicted in the movie The Molly Maguires featuring Sean Connery. Or perhaps it’s just the face of the average miner, a symbol of the everyday worker, a local working-class hero looking out over the downtown. However you think of the artwork, we hope that it’s enjoyed now and by the future custodians of this amazing home and town.

Contact the artist:

DENTON Burrows

Insta: @dentonburrows

Dripped On Productions

Insta: @drippedonproductions

See the artwork:

Craig Mansion

24 W Broadway Jim Thorpe, PA, 18229

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