On a recent walking tour, Bishop Mural Society members shared local history and kept the humorous anecdotes flowing as they showed off nine of the organization’s 15 murals with locals and 12 members of a Southern California Airstream club, in for Mule Days.
Mural Society board member Shirley Fendon, president Patty Holton, secretary Betty Cameron and treasurer Andrea Shallcross painted a vivid picture of the power of murals as they revealed the rich history behind the works of art which citizens walk or drive past every day.
The tour started with “The Slim Princess” at Fendon’s Furniture, 175 E. Pine St. Painted by Robert Thomas, John Knowlton and the late Richard Perkins, it features the Laws depot and community circa 1909. Slim Princess connected Bishop to the rest of world until U.S. 395 was built.
“Kittie Lee Inn,” at Whiskey Creek Restaurant, 524 N. Main St., again by Thomas, Knowlton and Perkins, was “the place to stay,” explained Fendon. “Curley Fletcher and John Wayne stayed here.” During World War II, the Kittie Lee, 1924-1965, served her country when her dining room became a dorm for military pilots training at Bishop Airport.
Fendon was nearly as famous as the clientele. She grew up at Kittie Lee Inn, which her parents owned, and recalled how much she enjoyed “dropping buckeyes from the second floor balcony with (her) Indian brother,” onto the less-amused, upscale clientele below. Fendons’ parents, William and Mazie Wharff, whose portraits are part of “The Kittie Lee,” probably weren’t amused either.
The “Trompe l’Oeil Mural,” at Studio 27 and Eastern Sierra Realty, 462 Rose St., is named for the technique, trompe l’oeil which in French means “deceives the eye.” Artists Knowlton, Bob Unkrich, Barbel Williams and David Williams deceive the eye by seamlessly connecting the windows, awnings and walls of both buildings. The image of Mural Society co-founder David Williams kneels in the trompe l’oeil garden. (According to Fendon, a ghost named Nilly lives in these buildings.)
The next stop-over was “The Ernest Kinney Teamster Family Mural” by Knowlton, Jenna Morgenstein, Perkins, Tory Michener and J.T. Schmdit, at Union Bank, 362 N. Main St. The center panel of the triptych, or three-paneled mural, depicts a 22-animal team, 18 pulling and four pushing to haul a 20-ton generator to Bishop. “It is still in use today,” the Mural Society brochure says of the generator. The left panel shows logging at Mono Mills and in the right, mules haul sillimanite from the Spark Plug Mine. (Sillimanite is used to insulate spark plugs.)
“This (triptych) is getting a little dim,” said Cameron, but funds are tight and the Mural Society is seeking $40,000 in funding for a new mural-in-the-works in honor of Perkins, a Mural Society artist killed in the line of duty as a Bishop policeman in 2001.
Mural Society puts murals out for bid. The least expensive mural to date has cost – in artist’s fees alone – $1,000 and the most expensive, upwards of $40,000, said Shallcross.
For example, without volunteers and other donations, “Celebrating the Sierra” – by Patty Holton and 110 community members – would have cost $225,000 conservatively, said Holton. The mural at Bishop Library, 210 Academy St., comprises 421 tiles that gather the “natural history and (237) animal life forms” in one spot for everyone to enjoy, explained Holton. In answer to Yank Sefton of Laguna Beach’s question, tiles were fired at 1,865 degrees, said Holton, so they’ll withstand the steady beat of the blazing Sierra sun.
“Bishop Bakery 1922” by Janet Essley shows Basque herders sharing their sheepherder’s bread recipe with the Schoch family,” who ran the Bishop Bakery on the mural’s site at Bishop Art Supply, 125 N. Main St. Yes, it’s the same “time-honored recipe for a thick-crusted, tasty bread” that is still baked in the area by the Schat family, according to the Mural Society brochure.
“A Dangerous Arrest” by Knowlton, Perkins, Kathy Sexton, Morgenstein and Mary Gipson-Knowlton, at Bishop Police Department, 207 W. Line St., captures the consequences of disturbing the peace, a drunken shoot-out and resisting arrest, relayed Fendon.
Since the tour group was near West Line Street, Fendon encouraged the walkers to “go up Line” and see four other murals at their leisure. She enticed them with a tale about one of the murals atop Dwayne’s Friendly Pharmacy, 644 W. Line St., “Will Rogers in Bishop,” by Philip Slagter.
Rogers “loved this area. He was part Cherokee himself and he loved the little Paiute children.” Because Native Americans were not allowed inside businesses at the time, Rogers went into the soda fountain, came out with a cone for each child and they all sat outside together, enjoying their ice cream.”
Also in the vicinity is “The Drain” by John Pugh at Window Fair, 400 W. Line St. It is “not without its controversy,” said Holton. “Drain” is a mural within a mural and literally shows water being piped out of a verdant Sierra as it drained of life, becoming a rocky, barren grey.
“Father Crowley,” on Body & Soul, 197 N. Main St., honors the man who, Fendon said, was the first person to see the potential for tourism in the Bishop area. He conceived, planned and promoted a much-hyped event known as the Wedding of the Waters (a mural in Lone Pine tells the story): a Native American runner carried a gourd of water, afoot, from the highest point in the valley, atop Mt. Whitney at 14,497 feet above sea level, to the lowest, Bad Water in Death Valley at 283 feet below sea level. Crowley’s idea to attract people to the area worked.
Shallcross talked about the power of murals, which is not to be underestimated. She cited Toppenish, Wash., a town in the death throes of economic demise. Residents decided to paint a mural which drew some attention. As more murals were created, people began to visit Toppenish to see them and the town was revitalized.
It was after a trip to Toppenish in 1997 that David and Barbel Williams founded the Bishop Mural Society with the help and support of downtown merchants. “They were on fire,” explained Shallcross.
The mural walk inspired new supporters that day. “You get a feel for this community and how you work together,” said Linda Laughlin of Borego Springs.
“I’d call (these murals) different points of reflection into Bishop’s past,” said Pam Hagen of Laguna Beach.
Local resident Mike Philip said, “It’s great that a small town like Bishop would have so many beautiful murals scattered throughout the town.” Another local, Betty Yerxa, said, “I’m really enjoying it. I’ve lived here 23 years and (today) I’ve learned a lot about the history that I didn’t know before.”
The final lap of the Mural Walk took the tour to “Bishop Mining Mural” at Amigo’s Mexican Restaurant, 285 N. Main St. The mural highlights Champion Sparkplug Mine, Pine Creek Tungsten Mine and others. The mural was painted in one day as the culmination of the 2005 three-day, “mural-making-in-your-community” California Mural Symposium, said Holton.
Though seemingly static, murals have a life of their own – but like all life, theirs is precarious. Although there is no ordinance to protect murals, some laws, such as the Federal Visual Artists Rights Act and California Preservation Act, offer a degree of protection. On the other hand, if murals were totally protected, said Shallcross, building owners might understandably be hesitant to allow murals on their walls. So, while Bishop Mural Society works are not an endangered species by any means, the group encourages visitors and community members alike to enjoy the compelling art form in their midst today.
The Bishop Mural Society’s brochure – a manual for self-guided walking tours– is available at the Bishop Chamber of Commerce.
The Mural Society offers private tours to small groups of 20 people or less by scheduling two weeks in advance with Holton at (760) 938-2460 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Visit www.bishopmurals.com  for more information on BMS murals, activities, etc.
Not included on the tour were “Young at Heart” at 230 W. Line St.; “Drain” at 400 W. Line St.; “The History of Medicine at the Local Pharmacy” and “Will Rogers in Bishop;” “The Sunland Orchard circa 1912” at 789 Home St.; and “4-H Quilt” on Douglas Robinson building at the Tri-County Fairgrounds.