There’s a celebration of summer’s bounty this time of year — the Sweet Corn Festival in Montrose, the peach festival in Palisade — but the rich agricultural history of this region is commemorated every day of the year along the streets of Delta.
So are coal trains and cowboys and vintage automobiles, the Ute Indian Nation and explorers Escalante and Dominguez, wildflowers and moonshine.
All are depicted in a series of about 20 murals that line the streets of downtown Delta. And, just like the local peaches and apples that are coming into ripeness, one of the most popular murals of all of them, a recreation of the colorful labels on fruit boxes from local orchards in Paonia and Cedaredge by artist Connie Williams, has recently come into its own again. Damaged by an automobile accident three years ago, repairs to the mural were completed last week, said Wilma Erven, director of parks, recreation and golf for the City of Delta. The painting of the mural is itself part of the artistic, historic and even the epicurean record of this region.
Williams, whose husband’s family has owned apple orchards and peach orchards locally for more than a century, founded the AppleShed gallery in Cedaredge.
The AppleShed is to this day a repository for Williams’ art; she has also several other murals downtown, including “Tribute to Agriculture;” George Moody’s 1891 cabin, the so-called “First House of Delta;” and “Ute Country,” a mural that honors the Ute Indian Nation. Williams supervised the repair of her much-loved fruit-label mural by Lane Sanders, a recent Delta High School graduate who painted the Delta panther (the school’s mascot) in the Delta High School gym.
“He and Connie worked through the details of the repair, and he’s done an impeccable job,” Erven said.
Williams was meticulous about the type of paint she chose for her works downtown, “Because I’d driven all over the Southwest and seen murals that didn’t hold up, because they were not painted with high-quality paint,” she explained. “I bought the best paint I could. I spend more money on the paint itself than I was paid to create those murals. We were in the apple industry, and my feeling was, if I could do some advertising for our industry, I was all over that. It was a wonderful challenge. And I knew these works would be my legacy.”
Even when created from high-quality paint, this outdoor art form is one of the most ephemeral types of creative expression. Graffiti is one danger.
“My staff keeps a pretty close eye on this,” Erven said. “Over 30 years, we’ve had just one incident of graffiti.”
The bigger hazard is that “a lot of dirt and sand and ‘cal mag’ gets thrown up from trucks going by on the road. We try to clean them and protect them the murals at least every five years with a product called DuraShield. You just can’t leave them alone.”
Even when you try to preserve them, there are other dangers to street art: New owners of buildings tear them down, taking the works painted on its walls along with it. Such was the fate of “Roundup,” a depiction of a “classic ranching scene” painted in 2000 by Boyd and Anne Bruce.
That’s why it’s important to get out and see this record of a local community while the works still exist. Andrew Gulliford, a historian and professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango who has written about the murals for the Durango Herald, drives through Delta often. The murals “are very much an idyllic way of looking at a small town on the Western Slope, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with idealism,” Guilliford said. “It’s what drove people to the Western Slope in the first place.”
What’s more, the varying palette of colors the artists wield, and the perspective on some of these pieces — such as on Williams’ fruit growers’ mural or Seth Weber’s “Train,” — “is extraordinary,” he added.
Gulliford is struck by the difference between the murals in other cities, and those in Delta. “Murals are often about an artist’s vision. The ones in Durango are like that. But the murals in Delta are tied to a particular place,” he said. “They’re more than art.” Their subject matter is “linked to the canyons, and the rivers, and interpretations of local history. It’s a good reason to slow down and look at them. No other community has done it quite like Delta.”
A free brochure about the murals and a map of where to find them, is available at the Visitors Center in downtown Delta.