Murals will bring artsy new look to Ellicott City's Main Street

For The Baltimore Sun

Three new murals are coming to Main Street, probably by summer’s end.

An Ellicott City native and an Ellicott City art instructor are the first winners of a mural competition organized by the Fund for Art in Ellicott City, a nonprofit founded in 2017 to bring public art to the historic mill town.

The designs by Wiley Purkey and Antonia Ramis Miguel were chosen by AEC’s board of directors and approved June 6 by the five-member Howard County Historic Preservation Commission, said Kim Egan, a Woodbine attorney and AEC president.

“These local artists clearly ‘get’ Ellicott City and are passionate about the town,” Egan said, noting the exact timing of the murals’ completion will rely on a host of factors.

“AEC’s board didn’t want to be four random people foisting our personal vision on the town for years to come, so we’re pleased that the designs we liked a lot were ones the commission also liked,” she said.

Seven artists from Howard and Baltimore counties submitted 20 contest entries for four sites pre-approved by the commission, Egan said.

Winners will be compensated from $175,000 in bond bill requests for the Ellicott City public art project that were funded by the House and Senate during the 2018 legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly.

While the winning murals will coincidentally be on the brick exterior walls of boutiques that sit on either side of the Howard County Welcome Center, they couldn’t be more different in design and execution.

Miguel, a Dorsey Hall art instructor, will create two “see through” murals on the east wall of Sweet Elizabeth Jane at 8289 Main Street. The paintings will reveal the imaginary inner workings of the Ford dealership that was once located there.

The site was home to the Ellicott City Garage from 1921 to 1927 and then occupied by the Ellicott City Motor Co. for a period, according to the Maryland Historical Trust website. Around 1969, the building became the offices of Reedy Electric Co., which moved to Hanover a couple years ago.

Purkey’s winning entry for the east wall of Sayre’s Eden Boutique at 8249 Main Street — site of Yates Market from 1885 to 2012 — will serve a dual purpose.

The artist will paint a panoramic landscape of the town on six aluminum panels in his Sykesville studio. Six more panels will feature a painting of an aerial view of Main Street taken from a historic map by the Sanborn Map Co. and will be mounted below the landscape as a wayfinding aid. Bins to hold Main Street business cards will be affixed between the upper and lower rows.

The remaining mural sites are the east and south walls of the former Ellicott Theatre at 8221 Main Street, most recently occupied by Precious Gifts before it moved to 8167 Main Street, and the front wall of Linwood Boutique, 3709 Old Columbia Pike.

Winning muralists for those sites – or possibly for new locations that might become available as the county’s flood mitigation and demolition plans for Main Street progress — could be announced by the end of the year, Egan said.

‘Cool, beautiful cars’

A native of Mallorca, Spain, Miguel began her art training at age 13. After coming to America in 1998, she moved to Ellicott City in 2006 and opened Miguel’s Atelier Art School in 2018.

For the larger of her two murals, which will employ the technique of realism, Miguel, 55, plans to paint Ford Model Ts on display in a showroom as life-size pedestrians peer inside the dealership.

“I love this building and the idea of the cool, beautiful cars inside it almost a hundred years ago,” she said.

To the left of that painting, which will measure 25 to 27 feet across and 10 to 12 feet high, she will create a second mural that will make it appear the brick wall has crumbled to create an opening that exposes a car mechanic at work. It will be 5 or 6 feet wide by 10 to 12 feet high.

Miguel said she got approval to apply acrylic paint onto the brick wall, which the Historic Preservation Commission had initially discouraged on Main Street buildings.

Since another structure had originally been attached to the east side of the building, the wall where her mural will be painted was never intended to be exposed and doesn’t fall under the rules for historic preservation, according to minutes of the June 6 hearing.

Painting an outdoor mural — an undertaking Egan described as “not for the faint of heart” — will be somewhat of a new experience for Miguel. When she lived in Washington, she created five indoor murals for Lauriol Plaza, a Dupont Circle restaurant. Four are seasonal scenes that are rotated.

“I’m so excited to get started,” said Miguel, who hopes to begin working by the end of July.

She plans to arrive at 5 or 6 a.m. each day once work commences to take advantage of the quiet and the cooler temperatures.

“It’s an honor to do something that will help the town come back to life,” Miguel said.

‘History on every corner’

Purkey, 65, was born on Fels Lane and his family lived in other places along Main Street.

“When you grow up with history on every corner, you don’t really understand what that experience means while you’re living it,” he said.

Purkey also began painting at 13, when he got his first oil painting set from the now-defunct Olin’s Art Shop. By 1969, he had started drawing local sites, such as the Patapsco Female Institute, the B&O train station and Tonge Row.

Though he’s now retired, he said he remains “driven to recapture the town’s history” and decided to enter four designs in the competition.

For his winning entry, Purkey will paint in a style he calls “realistic Impressionism.”

The artist will depict Ellicott City in winter from a perspective that doesn’t exist.

He likens his decision to depict real places accurately, but in a setting that “compresses the scene a bit,” to the visual equivalent of a historical fiction novel, in which an author invents fictional characters who take part in actual events.

The contrast of the newly fallen snow against the town’s muted palate “will make the composition sing,” he said.

Despite the documented resiliency of business owners and residents after the loss of life and property following flash flooding in 2016 and 2018, the mood along Main Street remains palpable, Purkey said.

“There’s a malaise that hangs over the town and that makes everyone anxious,” he said. “Seeing visual progress like this will make people feel better.”

Egan agrees that the time is right for Ellicott City to have fun again, pointing out that AEC was a sponsor of the Ellicott Silly Comedy Fest in March and is the lead sponsor of Paint It! Ellicott City 2019, an outdoor painting competition set for June 27 to July 1.

“Art makes the soul sing,” she said, “and we at AEC think it’s high time the town has something cheerful and fun to get excited about.”

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