“Your grandad worked in that factory.”
From thirty feet above, I heard this quiet declaration being passed from father to son amid the crowd gathering to watch the muralists in action. I paused, set down my paintbrush and began to lower the hydraulic lift, fumbling a bit with the controls that weren’t yet familiar.
As I completed my jerky descent, I saw a man in his 50s standing with his wife and twenty-something son. He pointed to the lanky auto workers taking shape on the red-brick wall and again remarked, “My dad worked in that exact factory.”
This statement was astounding. The scene in my mural is from a small factory in Jackson, Michigan that made cars for Kaiser Motors for only one year, 1954. The car I featured is called the Kaiser Darrin and only 435 were built. Ever. A mere 70 mechanics worked on the assembly line at the factory and yet here is the son of one of those 70 workers watching me paint a mural honoring his father’s line of work 65 years later, down the street from where he punched his timecard. Incredible. This why I do what I do.
In the latest mural in The Jobs Project, which honors the workers of the world through public art, I was invited to Jackson, Michigan for the Bright Walls Mural Festival. Jackson is a mere two hours away from our home in Glenn, Michigan but is a stark contrast to our rural lakeshore retreat. Jackson was once home to a thriving automobile manufacturing industry with 24 automakers setting up shop there in the early 1900s and cranking out over 10,000 cars over the next 50 years. For a time, it was the largest manufacturer of automobiles in the Midwest. The remnants of this once robust economy are still evident in the downtown area, which features some striking architecture and a number of beautiful brick office buildings, most notably the Blake Building.
Many industries have emerged and declined in Jackson over the years, including a bustling corset manufacturing sector, Michigan’s first state prison, and the railroad industry, which continues to operate the oldest passenger station in America. It is even credited with being the birthplace of the Republican Party. Yes, there were a lot of different directions that I could take my mural in, but the auto industry is at the heart of Jackson’s history and it was a no-brainer that my art would honor that history.
Once I had decided to depict an auto worker from Jackson’s past, it was time to figure out which car to feature. An easy choice would have been the Jaxon, a steam-powered car built in 1902 and named after the town it was built in. It’s a really intriguing car and I was mighty tempted by its appeal. However, as a I continued perusing the various cars made in Jackson over the years, none of them stopped me in my browsing tracks like the 1954 Kaiser Darrin.
In the 1950s, American auto manufacturers were making an effort to compete with the European sports cars of the day. Chevrolet came out with the sleek Corvette while Ford created the iconic Thunderbird. A lesser-known auto manufacturer, Kaiser Motors, also wanted to make its presence known and came out with the Kaiser Darrin, a curvaceous and lustrous design attributed to American designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin.
This futuristic beauty is the first American car equipped with a fiberglass body and has doors that slide on rollers into the front fender well. The Kaiser Darrin was released in 1954 and experienced sluggish sales mainly due to its poor performance on the road. Kaiser had struggled to find the correct engine for the Darrin and had ultimately arrived at a six-cylinder engine which didn’t deliver enough power to entice sports car enthusiasts. After just one year, Kaiser halted production of its Darrin as the factory’s lease in Jackson, Michigan expired. It was the last car ever produced in Jackson.
I had learned all of this about the Kaiser Darrin after being first allured by its beautiful design. The fact that it marked the end of the auto manufacturing era in Jackson made it even more impactful. And here I was, shaking hands with the descendant of one of the Kaiser auto workers. It was a moment I will never forget.
All in all, my time in Jackson was so wonderful. From the effusive welcome we received from the locals to the incredibly talented artists working all around me during that week, I have never experienced anything like the Bright Walls Mural Festival. The folks behind the festival are some of the most motivated and achieving young professionals I’ve ever met. They dream big and get things done. Thank you for letting me take part in this fantastic event.
And to the workers of Jackson, past and present, many of whom built cars as they built a better life for their families, I thank you for creating such an incredible city. it is my honor to tell part of your story with my mural and foster those conversations between parent and child about all the ways you’ve made Jackson what it is today. God Bless the workers.
If you’d like to make your community the next home of a Jobs Project mural, please write me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Also, I’m heading into my last swath of shows over the next few months and would love to show you what I’ve been up to in the studio so check my calendar to see if I’m coming to your city. Until then, stay tuned.