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Columbia artist finishes mural charting history of Waverly community

Symbolic Interpretation

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Keith Tolen’s in-progress Catch the Wave mural

When Columbia artist Keith Tolen agreed to create a new mural for the City of Columbia, he knew the job would come with some unique physical challenges.

First, he’d be painting on a 50-foot wall along busy Gervais Street, attached to Free Times‘ office, in the blistering July heat. And his workspace would be a sidewalk. Cars would be zipping up and down in back of him. Traffic, besides being distracting and potentially dangerous, made it impossible for him to step back and gain perspective.

Over two-and-a-half weeks of work on the mural, which is expected to be completed soon, Tolen has adjusted to the elements.

Standing in front of his work, he turns and points to the horizon.

“I found that the sun does not come around those trees until about 8:30,” he says

Also, while the heat kept him from ever working more than a few hours a day, the work itself — especially his obsessive pursuit of color combinations — kept him going.

“To me, it’s almost like intoxication, where it drives you,” he says. “It gave me a pattern to work with.”

The mural — a joint project funded by Coca-Cola Consolidated in partnership with One Columbia, Mayor Steve Benjamin’s office, Permanent Equity, and Free Times — is intended as a history of the Waverly community, the historically Black neighborhood where the new art piece will reside.

Tolen, who taught art for 30 years at Camden Middle School before retiring a few years ago, is a self-described expressive artist. He believed the Waverly story was best told symbolically.

“With this one wall there’s no way I could do an actual record of the history of the community,” he explains.

Luckily, he had the support of his backers.

“They did give me a lot of trust,” he says, “a lot of artistic license to interpret the information as I saw fit.”

Titled Catch the Wave, the mural begins with a massive rolling wave that is full of color — awash with sunny hot pinks and aquatic greens — arching over an ocean that includes figures of people, buildings of local interest (the Statehouse, a high rise) and words like “faith” and “love.” The mural conveys a sense of energy, of a community that is restlessly alive and active.

Although Tolen’s own style is more imaginative than representational, one of his own artistic lodestars has a foot on both worlds.

“My number one favorite painter is an artist named Chuck Close. He is a realistic painter, but if you really study his work, he’s layering on color. Some of his works, you have to look up close, almost become abstract, and I love that technique.”

Tracing the arc of the rising wave with his finger, he explains how that influence rubbed off.

Standing in front of the mural on July 31, Tolen explains how some of the influence rubbed off. He traces the arc of the rising wave with his finger.

“When I’m close up working, I’m looking at what’s there, I’m looking at color connections, going back to the whole idea with Chuck Close, how he worked, grouping colors, light colors with light colors, warm colors with warm colors, dark colors with dark colors.”

Tolen points out that there is a lot of planning involved in his work, even when it looks free and spontaneous.

“I knew which direction I was going in,” he says of the mural. “I knew the base color was going to be green. I knew the family of colors I was going to be working with, but did I know this color was going to be here and that color was going to be there? No. That didn’t happen until I started. That’s the beauty of painting. When you look at artists that paint, they hopefully study what happens when you put color near color.”

Creating effects by juxtaposing colors comes from another guiding light: the 19th century master Georges Seurat, who created images by applying millions of tiny dots of paint to his canvas.

“One of the things Seurat influenced me with was the whole idea that what happens when you put dots of color beside dots of color, and that’s all he did,” he says.

Even as the work draws to a close, Tolen sounds as if he’s just getting warmed up.

“I would never want to spend, like Michelangelo, a lifetime working on this,” Tolen says. “But I could. I could spend a lifetime working on this one wall.”

Maybe it’s what happens when inspiration takes over.

“I don’t want to sound cliche,” he says, “but I get in the moment and everything disappears.”

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