Joe Leatherbury: mural comes from a ‘sense of place’


Josiah Leatherbury is sitting in the warm weather near Daytona Beach, Florida – where he now lives – and he’s wondering about the fuss going on back here in his hometown.

“I found out last winter when Doug told me,” Joe Leatherbury says of the controversy surrounding the future of the mural he painted on the south side of the Historic Hoosier Theater. “They got in touch with Doug instead of me.”

Doug Leatherbury is an attorney in Salem, Indiana, and Joe’s brother; and he has been the person in contact with Historic Vevay, Inc., the group that runs the theater, and also preservationists who say that the mural must come down in order to save the entire building.

But conversations about the mural started well before that.

Historic Vevay had begun discussions about having another artist touch up the mural in preparation of Vevay’s Bicentennial last year; but a cease and desist order stopped that.

“They was gonna have that sign painter from Madison work on it,” Joe Leatherbury said. “He got up there and scrubbed the hell out of it. They took about half the paint off. They said they were just cleaning it, but really they were trying to take it off the wall. That’s what I heard, what people told me.”

After the work stopped on the mural, representatives from Indiana Landmarks, in discussion with Historic Vevay, began to analyze the interior of the wall – and make recommendations that the mural needed to come down in order to save the entire wall.

At issue according to Indiana Landmarks and preservation experts is the type of paint that was used to create the mural; and how it seals the nearly 200-year old brick that forms the wall. They say that the type of paint used does not allow the bricks in the wall to “breath” and let moisture dissipate away from the wall. That causes the trapped moisture to find other ways of getting out, which is causing damage to the entire wall.

The solution, they say, is for the mural to come down.

And through it all, Joe Leatherbury says that no one has contacted him about the matter.

“No one’s contacted me,” he says. “I just know about it through hearsay and Doug. The theater board never has contacted me.”

As for the paint, Joe Leatherbury says that there’s nothing wrong with the paint he used.

“The thing about the paint is – and I painted a lot of murals out in Montana before I painted any in Switzerland County because I was living out there, ‘cowboying around’,” Joe Leatherbury said. “I learned a lot about murals out there. People out there at first gave me some oil-based paint; and that type of paint will trap moisture. I learned real quick that you’ve got to use acrylic, water-based paint.”

And he says that the exterior of the Historic Hoosier Theater is another story.

“The theater is a unique situation because between each brick is that powdery mortar that they used when they built the wall for the theater,” he said. “Today, if you walk by the theater and you stick your fingers between the bricks, the stuff will come out under your fingernails. It’s just powder.”

Joe Leatherbury says that that’s where the damage is in the wall. He says that the paint is on the bricks, but when he was painting the mural his brush would go across the bricks and hit the mortar, and the powder would clog up the paint and the brush.

“Any moisture that gets in that building, it goes in around the bricks in where the mortar is, and also escapes that way,” Joe Leatherbury said. “You can’t trap moisture behind those bricks. That’s just what they’re saying. Any moisture that gets behind those bricks is going to go to the mortar around each brick and escape. Those are sand bricks, and you can’t trap moisture in a sand brick. Everything they’re saying is wrong.”

The issue of the mural goes back a long way, as there was controversy about the painting and the painter while the mural was going up.

“When I still lived in Switzerland County, about every two or three years, someone would attack that and someone would come up with the idea of erasing that painting off of there and having somebody else paint another one,” Joe Leatherbury said. “Even when I was painting the mural, they made me stop before I even got done.”

Joe Leatherbury said that he wishes he would have had the opportunity to finish the mural. He said that in his head he had the vision of painting an Indian village down along the darkness of the river; and he also had pictures so that he could paint the showboat ‘Majestic’ anchored on the Vevay shore.

“There were several other things that I wanted to paint in that had historical significance,” he said.

Painting the mural took Joe Leatherbury two summers. He said that in order to paint the mural he would walk south from the wall across Market Street to the laundry mat in order to get the proper perspective and scope of the art.

“I would look at the picture from over at the laundry mat and hold it in my head and go back over there and go back up on the lift or a scaffold or a ladder, whatever I was using at the time, and remember paint what was in my head,” he said. “If you walk up against that wall, you cannot see anything. You’re too close.”


So, from his home in Florida, does Joe Leatherbury see a solution to the issue? Is the wall in jeopardy, or is this just a way of getting the mural taken down?

“They’re just using it as an excuse,” he says. “If you go around Vevay and look at every other building. I know every building in Vevay. I’m on intimate terms with every brick building in downtown Vevay. I’ve lived there all my life. It’s my ancestral home. I’ve been behind every building. I’ve been in front of every building; and I’ve been inside of every building. If you go around you’ll go around you’ll see great big cracks. All the buildings are the same. All the buildings are deteriorating. I’d say in 50 to 100 years, there won’t be a single building in Vevay left. Those brick buildings will all be gone.”

And Joe Leatherbury sees more than paint on a wall when he thinks about his mural.

“When I was painting that mural, the stories that I would paint would come to me from people like Don Stepleton, Fred Jennings, Shorty McEntire, Grumpy Williamson, Claude Roland, Virgil Noel, Hokey Holdcroft” he said. “These were the old timers when I was a kid growing up in Vevay. They would tell me the old stories. They’d use words like ‘skiff’ instead of ‘john boat’. I’d sit there and listen to them, and a lot of guys older than them would tell the stories of the steamboats that used to come to Vevay. What I was painting was not in some picture that somebody showed me, but what those stories were that were in my head. I read Edward Eggleston. I read every book in that library. I painted in the old buffalo trace where the buffalo used to come down and cross. Even though I painted the mural, every time I’d look at it I’d see something new.”

Joe Leatherbury says that his mural comes from “a sense of place” that is uniquely Switzerland County; and that it takes a hometown boy who knows and appreciates the true history of the county to truly depict the grand past of this community adequately.

So what’s the solution?

Joe Leatherbury said that he has heard that there is the chance that he will be allowed to come back and paint another mural somewhere else in Vevay as the Hoosier Theater mural comes down; and he said that he is agreeable to that possibility.

“I’m not as upset about it as probably everybody thinks I am,” he said. “It wasn’t just my hand that created it. They say it takes a whole village to raise a child; well, it also takes a whole village to write a history or paint the pictures of that village. Nothing comes from just one individual.”