Philly artist turns Paw Paw legion wall into veteran tribute

by Kate Shunney

Working 10 feet off the ground to brush red paint across one of the stripes of the American flag, Kelsie Lilly gets startled by the honks of passing cars and trucks.

For weeks she has turned the plain brick side of the American Legion Post 128 in Paw Paw into a vibrantly-colored mural that honors the town’s military veterans.

Lilly said she’s pretty sure the honks from those passing vehicles are in appreciation of the giant American flag taking shape on the wall. Other people have stopped to give her their support in person. It’s a gesture she appreciates.

Artist Kelsie Lilly (standing, left) prepared Paw Paw students last Thursday for how they would fill in stars on the town’s new mural honoring veterans.

“I’m very thankful. I’ve done public artwork before and the response wasn’t always this positive,” said Lilly, who lives and works in the arts in Philadelphia.

How did a Philly public artist come to paint Paw Paw’s first major mural? According to Lilly, the idea came after the death of one of the American Legion’s longtime members, Bud Ryan.

Ryan apparently had always wanted something painted on the side of the legion post, but it never happened. After he died, the Sons of the American Legion organization decided to go ahead with some kind of painting.

Lilly’s father and mother live in Paw Paw, and she was approached to take on the project. She’s not a muralist by training, but leads community art projects, teaches art to children, creates community-building programs and is a professional face-painter.

Designing the final image of Paw Paw’s mural – a waving American flag with a saluting soldier – took several rounds of changes. Originally, she thought of having the flag take up the whole wall, and had planned to include the American Legion logo, with maybe an American eagle included. Local members didn’t want the eagle as much as they wanted the image of a soldier, and the post’s flagpole. Lilly put stars at the base so that local schoolkids could be involved in creating the mural.

“As a community artist, it’s extremely important to include the ideals and the hands of the community,” she said last week, as a group of youngsters added white paint to the bank of stars near the ground.

Lilly created the wall image on a computer graphics program, then came to the legion parking lot and projected the image onto the primed wall, tracing the lines with a permanent marker.

She chose mural-grade paint with the highest light fastness possible, to make sure the colors of the mural don’t fade over time. Two final coats of exterior varnish sealer will protect the paint and image further from weathering.

This week, weather permitting, Lilly hopes to put the final touches on the project. The aim is to have it fully completed in time for Paw Paw’s annual Memorial Day parade and ceremonies, which are the county’s most established events honoring the sacrifices of military veterans. The holiday is also a homecoming time for the Paw Paw community.

“I think it’s going to be nice at Memorial Day,” said one of the legion employees.

Lilly said her own grandfather, James Jorden, was a veteran and lived in Paw Paw. She’s been remembering him as she paints, and she asked students to think of any veterans they knew as they helped fill stars with bright white paint.

“When I drive by, I can tell Mom I was part of the first mural in Paw Paw,” said one girl as she turned in her paintbrush.