ASHLAND A summer spent hanging out at the Portsmouth floodwall helped direct a career.
Herb Roe, 40, is an accomplished painter with his own business who spent the summer after his first year in art school working under muralist Robert Dafford of Lafayette, La.
Although he lived in Greenup County as a boy, Roe, who was born in Portsmouth, return to the city in his teens and studied art as a student at Portsmouth High School and in classes from Sharee Price. When he graduated in 1992, he went to Columbus College of Art and Design to study fine art on a scholarship.
Meanwhile, Dr. Louis R. Chaboudy of Portsmouth had become enthralled with floodwall murals after seeing them in Steubenville, Ohio, according to ohiorivertourism.org. He and his wife formed a committee to make murals a reality in Portsmouth and found and hired Dafford.
After Roe’s first year in art school, he joined the project.
“I returned from my first year at CCAD in the spring of 1993 and Robert had begun the first mural of the Portsmouth project earlier that spring,” Roe said. “I needed a summer job so I went down and introduced myself and asked if he needed any help. I worked for him that summer and then went back to school in the fall. Robert had a large project coming up in NOLA (New Orleans) and he asked if I would like to help him with it. So I consulted with my advisers at school about the opportunity and, with plans to leave for a year, dropped out to run off to New Orleans.”
Roe, the son of Herb and Debbie Roe of Wheelersburg, said he didn’t work on the very first mural, which was the longest of the project at 20 feet by 160 feet, but he worked on every other mural on his hometown’s floodwall.
“At first, I was doing underpainting and border work, but gradually over the years doing more and more details,” he said, noting the summer job led to working as Dafford’s top assistant for 15 years and doing more than 300 murals with him. “By the time I left Dafford Murals, I had taken on the researching and designing aspects of many of our projects, and painted many murals without Roberts direct involvement — more than 20 on the Paducah Wall to Wall Project alone.”
Roe said mural painting has its own set of problems and challenges an artist used to working on canvas might not anticipate. He said he has discovered what works best for him.
“I prefer to work things out on a small scale and then transfer my drawings up, similar to the old masters, although not everyone works this way,” he said. “Keeping everything in scale on a 20-story-tall mural is paramount. The weather can be a definite factor and, at times, has been our worse enemy. Dodging rainstorms and working 10 to 12 hours a day in the mid-August heat or the falling temperatures in October can be a trying experience.”
He said he enjoyed working on a large scale and it came to him easily.
“It was always a blast working on something so large you had to walk 100 feet away to see the entire composition,” he said.
Portsmouth’s floodwall was built following the 1937 flood — the city flooded that year, as well as in 1884 and 1913 and the floodwall saved Portsmouth from floods in 1964 and 1997. The wall contains stars on the riverside honoring some of the area’s notables, including former Major League Baseball players Don Gullett and Al Oliver. Some of the subjects represented on the mural side include the Portsmouth Earthworks, a large mound complex constructed by the Ohio Hopewell culture from 100 BCE to 500 CE; Lower Shawneetown, a Shawnee village that straddled the Ohio River just downstream during the late 18th century; Shawnee tribe leader Tecumseh; and a Civil War unit from Portsmouth fighting at Gettysburg.
“Some of my detail work on the Portsmouth project I am especially proud of are several of the soldiers in the war memorial panel and may of the ballplayers in the baseball heroes mural,” Roe said.
The original mural project was finished in the fall of 2003, but four more panels have been added since then. The floodwall contains more than 2,200 feet of art.
Even as he worked for Dafford Murals, spending up to 10 months a year on the road, Roe said he worked on easel paintings.
In 2007, he left the company to focus more on his own projects — some murals but more large oil paintings and commissioned illustrations and portraits.
“Most of my current work focuses on traditional music and culture here in the Acadiana area of Louisiana; the Courir de Mardi Gras, boucheries and musicians,” he said.
He no longer keeps an apartment in Portsmouth as he did in his early years in Louisiana and said he doesn’t miss the cold winters, even though he does miss the hills and tries to visit the area during the summer.
“I enjoyed my time with Robert,” Roe said. “I learned so much about color and working on a large scale from him. We traveled the country together for years, and it is because of him and his gracious family that I made my way to my new home in south Louisiana.”
LEE WARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2661.