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The colorful mural, newly reimagined, that honors labor's past, present and future in Springfield

In downtown Springfield, construction workers are adding a new story to a building across from the Emerald Arts Center. The renovation is tearing down a mural that honored local laborers. But its demise has given rise to a new, reimagined mural full of the faces past and present who made Springfield what it is today.

It comes more than a half after the documentary "The Inheritance," sponsored by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, chronicled the immigrant labor experience in America, exposing deplorable, dangerous conditions and the fight from the 1900s to the 1960s for worker protections.

The meaning of the film's title is revealed in the narrator's opening lines: “Immigrants and the sons of immigrants, handing down their inheritance, creating out of the dreams and the anguish of their songs, the face of America.” The inheritance, a better world for their children and the ongoing need to advocate for fairness and freedom.

A new mural takes shape

On a hot day in late August, two blocks away from the old mural, Alejandro Sarmiento uses a wet rag to wipe away gluey residue, a soft paint brush to make touch ups, and a step ladder to reach the highest edges of the work.

“It’s so close to being done," the muralist told KLCC as he moved across the scenes. "Hopefully we can finish it before the taggers come."

The installation, constructed in panels, is 68 feet wide. Bold black letters outlined in white declare the title in both English and Spanish: "Labor Builds Community" and "El Obrerismo Construye Comunidad."

So, the whole mural is about how the different industries in Springfield make the community as a whole.

With a Sept. 8 deadline fast approaching, Ben Minnis, Arts Education Program Coordinator with the Lane Arts Council, is on site to lend a hand. Sarmiento instructs him on where to make fixes and how to paint straight lines. Minnis also helped apply the protective coating that will defend against weather and graffiti.

The wall outside the Academy of Arts and Sciences, a local magnet school, is now a vibrant, time-spanning nod in acrylic to everyone who has ever worked in timber, agriculture, education, health care, construction, and government in Springfield.

"It was spearheaded by a group of local labor leaders who noticed that their old labor mural that was up 25 years ago was getting torn down. The building was bought and the new owner had different vision," Minnis said on one of the two days KLCC stopped by to speak with him and Sarmiento as they worked.

The mural, which represents labor’s past, present and future, shows loggers, farmers and field workers, teachers and students, health care providers and patients, construction workers, and, in a final scene, sign-carrying activists marching for a wide variety of causes.

Minnis said that final scene is built on the back of all the labor and history of the prior scenes, and that "what's going to charge them to the future is continuing to advocate and rally together.”

Student involvement

Artist Alison McNair created the original mural back in 2001, alongside high school students.

"She did a lot of murals in town," said Minnis, a friend of McNair's. "I know it was really hard for her to see that one going down. We were really hoping to help her see that her work is what inspired this new re-envisioning."

Minnis hoped she’d attend the new unveiling, but McNair died unexpectedly in July.

"We were able to bring some of the work from her old mural into this mural, which feels good, but we’d really hoped to kind of, full cycle, have her present at the unveiling, and to be able to speak about that past process," Minnis said.

In previous interviews, McNair spoke about how much she enjoyed mentoring the high school students. And not just the bookish students. But also, those who seemed to really need a chance to prove themselves, impressed at how they grew into leaders during the project.

For the new piece, Sarmiento collaborated with about 20 students at the Academy of Arts and Academics, and called it a great experience.

The school's principal, Ame Beard, said the project showed the school’s emerging talent what it takes to be a working artist.

"The students worked with Alejandro side by side along with our staff, and actually painted the whole mural,” Beard said during an interview in her office as Sarmiento and Minnis finished outside.

“It's really critical in this day and age that you don't just leave high school with a skill but more of a skill of like how you're going to take that next step in the world,” Beard said.

Just two blocks away, the hammering and clanking of construction signal progress for the building's redesign, and an encroaching end to McNair’s original work.

“They are building a second floor on it," Minnis said. "They popped a bunch of windows out of what used to be the mural. So right now it has scaffolding all over it. And by the time this is unveiled in a couple of weeks, that other mural might be almost totally gone."

The new mural is more construction proof. Because it's built and assembled in panels, it’s moveable.

Looking out from each scene are faces that honor McNair’s work, the workforce of today, and historic leaders, like prominent union activist Jessie Bostelle.

"She's in the original mural, but she's in this one as well. Then over here, this little girl, her dog, you can still see her standing in front of that building. That's back there where the original mural is. So she’s a total character, she and her dog are kind of tucked back in there,” Minnis said, walking along the mural and pointing out the each reference.

Beard, the school's principal is also tucked in there. As is Sarmiento, who managed to work in a self portrait.

The mural also contains references to the documentary “The Inheritance."

Written on each panel, is one line from the film's theme song lyrics, famously sung by Judy Collins:

Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing,
Doesn’t come down like the summer rain.
Freedom, freedom, is a hard won thing, you’ve got to work for it, fight for it,
day and night for it,
And every generation got to win it again.
Pass It on to your children,
Pass it On.

The new Labor Mural is a project of Lane Arts Council's Artist in Residency program, which pairs schools with artists to help schools realize their creative dreams and their vision for the arts with their students. T

The mural will be dedicated on Sept. 8 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. near the Academy of Arts and Academics, 645 Main St., where the mural is installed.

Jill Burke became KLCC's arts reporter in February, 2023.