A Timely Memorial: "Liberty Remembers," Bucyrus, Ohio
A mural painted by Eric Grohe and his team to honor military veterans developed unexpected poignance after September 11, 2001.
by David Searls
began as many did that year, with Eric Grohe up on a lift amidst brushes and paint cans, transforming one wall of an old brick building in Bucyrus, Ohio.
mid-morning with a strange bit of news, something about a plane having crashed into a building in New York City.
Though curious, Grohe went back to work. Facade muralists savor balmy weather like politicians seek attentive, deep-pocketed crowds. It was much later that evening that the artist felt the full, awful impact of September 11, 2001. At that moment, his already epic project “Liberty Remembers” achieved deeper meaning. He painted a message on a large sheet of butcher paper and hoisted it high over his unfinished canvas.
“Her torch still shines, our flag still waves,” he’d written above the incomplete painting of Lady Liberty lifting a dying warrior to his eternal reward.
The next day, the flower bouquets began showing up at the base of the building.
Bucyrus is a farm-field-surrounded community of narrow Victorians and weathered frame homes. The downtown, like many in these Wal-Mart years, especially in hard-hit Ohio, needed something. It looked forlorn with its derelict movie theater and empty storefronts amidst a liberally zoned accumulation of lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, real estate agencies, fast food joints, banks, auto parts dealers, chain retailers and, nearby, the ornate courthouse and sky-high steeples of churches commemorating more prosperous times.
“We had a vacant lot on a town square, a gravel parking lot for the last 20 years,” Deb Pinion, director of the Bucyrus Area Chamber of Commerce, recalls. Bordering one end of that lot was an exterior wall of The Amish Vault Furniture Store. That’s where she set her sights on putting a mural like those she’d seen in Steubenville, Ohio.
Some of those murals had been created by Eric Grohe, owner of Eric Grohe Murals and Design. Eric and Kathy paid a visit, and the result was 1998’s “American Crossroads,” a truly epic view of early 20th-century Bucyrus.
“It was entirely privately funded,” Pinion points out. As were the three Grohe murals that would follow, including “Liberty Remembers.”
“There are a lot of walls here,” she recalls Grohe saying while on his initial assignment.
He had his eye on the brick side of a building housing an Edward Jones investment branch and overlooking an ice cream stand. Nothing special, but the artist told Pinion, “I knew I was going to paint it when I left Vietnam. I just didn’t know where I was going to put it.”
Now he had a place to plant his mind’s image of “Liberty Remembers.”
Grohe, 62, is a gentleman. Born in New York City, he served a tour of duty in Vietnam and eventually made Seattle his home — more or less. Most of the couple’s time is spent on public projects throughout the United States, and as far away as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Though soft-spoken and friendly, the muralist knows when to put his foot down. One town wanted him to paint a bridge scene to honor the structure that marks its identity. Great idea, except that the project would be painted three blocks from the real deal. Why would he simply replicate the view?
“What I do isn’t just a pretty picture slapped on a wall,” he explains. Some images “look good on a postcard, but don’t create monuments.”
Epic grandeur in weather-resistant paint is what Grohe, with the help of Kathy, a graphic artist in her own right, and small teams of local art-school assistants, has created in communities like Bucyrus.
While Grohe was eager to start “Liberty,” Pinion had only found partial funding by 2001. Pinion started anyway in what he calls “a leap of faith.” They were in a “stage agreement,” and Grohe was in the second of four payment stages when 9/11 hit. The well ran dry while townspeople, along with the rest of the nation, opened their wallets to tragedy-related charities.
Then a school-aged girl contributed $10 as a way of honoring her grandparents. After Pinion took the story to the Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum, “the checks started pouring in.”
Stepping back from the work one day, Grohe’s critique of “Liberty” was that the project commissioned to honor countywide military veterans “was a political message with national meaning, but no real connection to the community.”
The solution, he decided, was to add faces and a few full-body portraits of Crawford County’s own warriors. Once Grohe had eked out room for a couple hundred memorialized veterans, Pinion went back to the town’s newspaper, this time soliciting photographs.
Afterwards, says Pinion, “I opened the door and went, ‘Oh my God.’ People had brought in bomber jackets, canteens, letters, photo albums.”
Trying to turn down as few loved ones as possible, Grohe found space for 284 soldiers up and down and alongside the vertical pillars. He painted veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War, both world conflicts, Vietnam, Desert Storm — even the Revolutionary War. The bluecoat had, of course, served long before the invention of the camera, but his image was captured at the age of 103.
Kathy scanned and printed each photo to a height of about 8 inches. Grohe outlined facial features by poking holes into each photocopy. He then carefully positioned each in place and patted blue powdered chalk over the holes, leaving an outline on the wall. With this as a guide, he painted about a dozen portraits a day.
Grohe can be unapologetically sentimental. Among the “Liberty” faces is one young Vietnam casualty extending a Purple Heart. It’s for his mother, who never received his medal through a falling out between widow and immediate family. There’s also Nemo, a famous Vietnam War canine courier who completed a final mission despite losing an eye to gunfire. Nemo’s handler lives in the area and submitted the photo with the comment that the dog had “saved more men than I did.” Careful viewers will also spot a horseshoe in recognition of the courageous mount of a local Revolutionary War military leader. “After having to turn down so many soldier photographs, I couldn’t justify painting an entire horse,” Grohe explains.
The community introduced itself as though for the first time through the mural. “There were submarine soldiers living next door to one another who didn’t know it,” Grohe recalls.
As Pinion proudly states after mentioning inclusion of an area boy who was the last Marine killed at Iwo Jima, “We were patriotic before patriotic was cool.”
Because of the mural, that fact will be apparent to generations of residents and visitors to Bucyrus, Ohio.