Ford mural waves to passersby from 'balcony'

 Project may eventually include famed Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler

By Ben Freed
The Ann Arbor News

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Drivers and pedestrians passing the Dahlmann Campus Inn may have noticed a surprise hotel guest waving at them from a second-story balcony.

A new life-sized mural of U.S. President Gerald Ford is the work of Ann Arbor artist Katherine Larson, who undertook the project at the request of Campus Inn owner Dennis Dahlmann. Ford could be just the beginning of the project, which Larson said will also include Bo Schembechler and Desmond Howard if public reaction is positive.

“He (Dahlmann) wanted to do it as a tribute to famous Michigan people,” she told The Ann Arbor News. “And Gerald Ford has stayed in the hotel and I think Bo stayed there and Desmond as well. So that’s why he wanted to do it on the Campus Inn specifically.”

Larson said the idea is for the three Michigan legends to be lined up next to each other facing the parking lot and Huron Street on the south side of the building.

“If the rest of the mural is completed it will look like the balcony is three-dimensional and cut into the side of the building,” she said.

The mural is Larson’s first outdoor mural in Ann Arbor, but hardly her first in the area. She said approximately 30 of her 150 murals are in the area, with others appearing as far away as Fargo, N.D.

Larson used a technique developed in California to avoid spending weeks on a scaffold painting the mural. She did most of the work on a canvas made of special material that is attached to the wall using a powerful adhesive.

“You use a material called parachute cloth,” she said.

“It does not stretch diagonally and does not deteriorate. Both of those are important because if you do a mural in sections you don’t want a piece to stretch diagonally because if it does it will distort. And if you think about it, if a parachute stretched diagonally you would die, so they make it very well.”

Once the mural was painted and on the building, Larson spent one day doing touch-up work and covering the painting with anti-graffiti and UV-protective coatings.

The parachute fabric is so thin when the mural is completed the that the texture of the building shows through, making it appear as though it’s painted directly onto the concrete.

“I want it to look realistic,” Larson said. “That’s why it’s important to be able to paint after the piece is up there. I had to make a few minor adjustments to the way the windows fit together to make sure it looks real.”

Even though she wasn’t out on a scaffold, Larson put a lot of work into making sure the painting of Ford was as historically accurate as possible.

“I did a lot of research on him before painting him,” she said.

“I went to the Ford Presidential Library to get material on him, because it’s very difficult to render someone who has passed. They gave me a lot of reference shots that helped me understand his character and what kind of person he was. He’s the most famous person I’ve ever painted, so I wanted to make sure I got it right.”

Even before she received the commission to paint Ford, Larson had an up-close and personal experience with the president.

On a family ski vacation in Vail in late November, Larson’s mother was distressed that the restaurant at the hotel did not have any turkey on the menu. After being told there was none available, the family noticed a large whole turkey on a platter being taken through the restaurant.

“So my mother, to no avail, repeatedly asked if we could have some of that turkey,” Larson said.

“Then 15 minutes later a big tall man with a sweater on walked up to the table and said ‘Hello, I’m Gerald Ford. I’d be happy to share some of my turkey with your family.’

“ It made a huge impression on me because he didn’t look like the president you see on TV. He was quite a different person.”

Even years later, Ford’s height continued to be a distinctive feature for Larson. She made sure to check historical records so that each would figure would appear exactly as tall as they were supposed to.

“Ford is the tallest out of the three,” she said.

“That surprised me actually, I didn’t realize he was so tall. Bo’s definitely the smallest.”