Road Stories

Where the West Still Lives

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With each brushstroke, the Western murals in the tiny town of Toppenish, Washington, transform the streets to a better place.

Jesse and Frank hit the streets like pros. Their massive hoofs clopped loudly on the asphalt and their beautiful, large bodies pulled the covered wagon filled with tourists with ease. I sat near the rear of the wagon, camera perched and ready to snap pictures of the incredible artwork we were about to see.

I was on a mural tour in Toppenish, Washington, where the town’s motto is “Where the West Still Lives.” Jim Duke, who owns Toppenish Mural Tours as well as Jesse and Frank, explained into his microphone the history of his hometown and the background behind each mural. Since 1989 when the murals started being painted, buildings throughout the quaint town had been transformed into works of art, and with that, the heart of the town began to beat again.

Mural tour team of horses, Jesse and Frank.
Fjords Jesse and Frank lead tours through the town of Toppenish six days a week during peak season. Photo by Dudley Malone

Of the 75 and growing murals, a few stood out to me. Newell’s Drive, painted by Don Crook, Shirley Crystal and Gary Kerby, appears on the Reid Building facing South Toppenish Avenue. The 70-foot mural shows a remuda roundup led by early pioneer Charlie Newell, and it took six weeks to complete.

Intrigued by the amount of work and vision that went into these paintings, I contacted Gary Kerby once I returned to Western Horseman’s offices in Fort Worth, Texas. Kerby, who grew up on a ranch in Toppenish but now resides in Montana, has painted murals in Washington, California, Oregon, Montana and Illinois. In Toppenish alone, there are five murals with his name on them.

The Reid Building mural in Toppenish, Washington.
Newell’s Drive appears on the Reid Building in Toppenish. The mural is 70 feet long and shows pioneer Charlie Newell rounding up a remuda. Photo by Katie Frank

Kerby says each project starts with a ton of research. “If you have too much information, then you can fish through it and find one thing that creates a spark and the inspiration to do it.”

After getting a painting approved by the city council, Kerby makes transparencies of the scene he plans to paint and projects them on the building come nightfall. He sketches the mural on a primed wall and notes “register marks,” such as where a horse’s eye or hooves need to be. The whole process takes a couple hours.

After that, Kerby uses acrylic paint to complete the mural. Acrylic paint, as opposed to the oil-based Sign Painters’ enamel many artists used to use, is safe and dries fast, which speeds up the entire process. If he works by himself, he says he can finish a mural in about two weeks, after which they’re sealed for durability.

A mural in Toppenish, Washington.
Sometimes, the perfect angle is street level. Here I am shooting Rodeo by Newman Myrah, which is painted on the west wall of Ferguson’s Saddlery. Photo by Dudley Malone

“The biggest challenge is the weather. A lot of times you’re standing on rocks or you’re standing on blacktop,” he says. This surprised me, as looking up at the soaring, tall walls made me assume creating a piece of the size was the most difficult part.

“When that sun is hitting the blacktop and then off a wall this is primered white, you can have the sun at your back and get a sunburn on your face because it reflects,” he says. “I learned fairly early on to start wearing sunglasses all the time, because it’s blinding.”

As the Fjord team comes to the end of the tour, I’m more eager than ever for dusk to come so I can go take pictures of the sunset against the vibrant walls. No matter the time of day, however, the walls were expressive, lively and gave the tiny town a voice.

Duke explains that if it wasn’t for the murals, the town would likely be in shambles. I like to think it’s a combination of art and the values of the West that saved the town. From every intersection and street, it was certain the West was still alive.

To read more about Toppenish’s Western murals, check out this article.

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