“Hand me the yellow,” Lynn said. “And some more water.”
“Ok,” I say, agreeably—Lynn, after all, is on the top step of a ladder, which teeters now and then as its legs sink deeper into the sand. Me, I am most content to be Michelangelo’s water girl with my Keene sandals firmly on the ground.
Well, the comparison is a little inflated: we aren’t doing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. What we are doing is restoring the wall mural on the street side of the elementary school in Tarpum Bay, Eleuthera, Bahamas. It’s the second time we’ve done this project: the first restoration was about three years ago. Back then we used hardware store enamel and cheap brushes that textured the paint with bristles. The school, which sits by the Caribbean shoreline, is vulnerable to onshore winds and saltwater spray—no mural can last long under those conditions. Our work had faded after two years in the elements.
This mural is special, though. It’s an underwater scene, complete with coral, bright fish, snails, a lobster, and a swimming turtle. Even more importantly, it was painted by one of Tarpum Bay’s most famous residents, artist Mal Flanders. Flanders came to Eleuthera in the early 1970’s and lived and painted on the top of Bernard Hill in Tarpum Bay. Though he died in 2004, residents remember him fondly as a quiet, unassuming man who loved film as well as painting, and who used to gather the residents together in the elementary school to show Three Stooges and other classic comics.
The mural on the elementary school wall is one of Flanders’ many gifts to this community, and it is much loved by children and adults as they slow down to make the sharp curve on Queen’s Highway and head inland from Tarpum Bay.
This year we came prepared. Lynn toted about 10 pounds of acrylic paints, as well as brushes and fixative, when she traveled from Michigan. The new school principal was delighted with our offer to paint, and as soon as we got over our obsession with lounging on the beach every day, we organized for the restoration. Our plan was to start fairly early in the morning, as the wall is in full sunlight by late morning and the temperature begins to climb quickly.
It took us about three mornings, working 3-4 hours each day. Because the original was so faded, we found ourselves getting creative—a new angelfish here in the middle, and some pink and green plants in the corner. I hoped Mal forgave us our creative license, but the original was long gone in some faded sections.. Besides, the first mural had been painted on wood and attached to the wall: I envisioned Flanders in his studio under the palm trees sipping Kalik beer as he painted. Lynn and I, on the other hand, were dangling from ladders in the hot sun, working to finish before the paint dried and caked.
Part of the fun of this project is working outside the classroom windows. We were privy to third grade math problems: “There are 18 slices of bread. How many sandwiches can you make?” Most lessons were conducted verbally, with teachers asking questions and students chorusing their responses. Students also stood by their desks and chanted “Good Morning Miss Smith”, and repeated together “God is great and God is good, and we thank Him for our food” before the mid-morning snacks and recess. The children wear school uniforms: starched white shirts and navy pants or skirts—except for Fridays, which is physical education day. Then jeans are allowed, and tennis shoes.
The children were most admiring as the mural took shape. “Ooooh, look at the lobster. And that black fish!”
“What’s your favorite fish,” asked Lynn, ever the teacher.
A chorus of replies: The red one! The black one! The little yellow ones!…until every fish was named and exclaimed over.
The teachers seemed to like it all, too: they would stop by and chat briefly. And the ever supportive principal would appear quietly behind us several times each morning. “It’s coming,” he’d say. “Looking good!” One morning he made sure someone brought us a plate of steaming conch fritters as a mid-morning snack, much to our delight.
But I think the highest praise came from the proprietor of the grocery store across the street from the school. “Sure is real nice of you to fix that painting,” he said to Lynn. “Makes everybody proud.”