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Giant Norwich Harbor mural restored with 'popping' bright colors

Norwich — Local artist David Bishop saw a photo in the newspaper of the new city fire boat on a trial run in Norwich Harbor, but it wasn’t the boat that caught his eye, it was the background.

In one photo, behind the boat, the faded, peeling and rust-stained Norwich Harbor “welcome” mural stood out to Bishop. Weeds obscured part of the painting, which was created in the late 1990s.

“I saw the photo in the paper, and saw the mural in back, and I said, ‘Man, that thing needs work,’” Bishop said Tuesday, as he prepared to finish repainting the final strip of wall and do touch-ups in a few spots. “The marina is so nice, and the boats coming up the river, and this looked, yuck.”

Bishop, 78, had repainted other historic signs in Norwich, including at the Norwichtown Green, the Gov. William A. Buckingham Memorial building, Uncas Leap and the birthplace site of Benedict Arnold. Several years ago, he repainted the Whale Wall in New London, originally painted by artist Robert Wyland.

He asked Norwich Public Works for permission to volunteer to restore the harbor mural on the retaining wall beneath the police station. Harbor Management Commission Chairman H. Tucker Braddock welcomed the project and assisted in getting permission from Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, whose freight rail tracks run past the strip of city-owned land at the base of the mural.

Bishop initially estimated the job would take about two months, with assistance from his 31-year-old son, John Bishop. He used his 10% veteran’s discount at Lowes to buy the paint, brushes, scrapers and rollers. The Police Department allowed use of the rear parking lot and the 10-foot and 16-foot ladders needed to reach the upper portions of the 500-by-16-foot mural.

Bishop started in early June, working in the afternoons after the sun dipped behind the police station, shading the area. Frequent rain and humidity intervened.

“We had such lousy weather, and I’m older than I used to be,” he said as to why it took him over three months to complete.

As he worked, boaters waved and shouted encouragement.

One evening, a group of boaters sat on a dock at the Marina at American Wharf drinking beer and watching him paint.

“You’re doing a great job!” he recalled one yelling. “We’re going to have a beer and come help you.”

“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he responded. The boaters laughed and resumed their party.

The work was tedious at times. Because of the extensive peeling, Bishop had to scrape small sections at a time so he wouldn’t lose the design, redrawing the outline in spots where it had been wiped out.

He made only slight changes, enhancing the bright red roses with shading to make them appear three dimensional and “pop out,” he said, with a black background instead of blue. He also shaded two yellow stars that flank the words “Norwich Harbor” on the white banner scroll.

Bishop estimated he purchased 17 gallons of paint, plus the rollers, buckets and brushes for the project.

While the mural is done, he hopes to return to paint the metal railing above the wall to prevent future rust stains from dripping down. And he wants to add a plaque with the original mural date, the restoration and crediting original artist Nancy Bram Mereen and funder Ronald Aliano, then-owner of the Marina at American Wharf and chairman of the Harbor Management Commission. Both are deceased.

Bishop plans to ask the city to paint a clear sealant coat to preserve the work and to cut more brush from the water’s edge for better views from the harbor, the marina and the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park across the water. He also hopes the city will repair long-dead footlights or install new lights from the top.

Braddock likes the idea of the clear coating and lights. He is planning a rededication ceremony soon at Brown Park to thank Bishop and to show off the restored mural.

The original mural in the late 1990s transformed a 5,300-square-foot green retaining wall. Aliano, a Norwich enthusiast, paid for the paint and all supplies.

Bram Mereen was a local artist and city planning department technician. Her husband, John Paul Mereen, recalled that Nancy presented the design to Aliano as a rough concept, and Aliano loved it and wanted it unchanged. She pointed out that the flags at the top seemed to be flying in different directions.

“That’s Norwich,” Aliano told her, Mereen recalled.

Mereen said he is pleased his wife’s artwork has survived and still can be enjoyed in the city.

“I think it’s great,” he said of the restoration. “I know she enjoyed doing that when Ron asked her.”

Braddock praised Bishop’s work and dedication to the city. Bishop, a Norwich native, moved to Mystic in 1979 and back to Norwich in 2015.

“David really stepped up to the plate,” Braddock said. “It was not an easy thing to do. David is really an artistic person and is very conscientious of what he does. He did a great job in bringing out the feeling of the original design, he really brought it back to life. Just the energy he put into it. He wanted to do it by himself, because he wanted those colors to just pop off the wall. And they do.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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