The City of Portsmouth, located at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers, has a history of public murals, from those painted in the 1930s by Clarence Carter in the lobby of the Post Office on Gay Street to those in the Law Library at the County Court House by Herman Henry Wessel. Yet, Robert Dafford’s work on the city’s Flood Walls is truly epic and has helped define modern-day Portsmouth.
In the 1990s as residents of Portsmouth struggled with the global forces of deindustrialization that had shut down factories throughout the Scioto and Ohio valleys, community leaders launched an ambitious historical murals project and hired Robbert Dafford to complete the work. Some 2,000 years of history would come to be painted on 2000 feet of flood wall, helping generate much needed tourism as well as a sense of community and identity for a great and historic city, a place that had seen the rise and fall of previous civilizations, including the Adena, Ohio Hopewell, and Fort Ancient Cultures, and the rise and fall of the American steel, shoe, and nuclear industries.
Dafford’s work can be found throughout the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys, from Point Pleasant, West Virginia, to Portsmouth, Ohio, and down to Maysville, Covington, and Paducah, Kentucky, and to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana. By the 2013, Dafford had completed over 350 large-scale public works throughout the United States, as well as in France, Belgium, England, and Canada.
In retrospect, Portsmouth’s choice of Dafford appears inspired, as it is due to his artistic vision that the city’s flood wall has been transformed into a magnificent work of public history, one that attracts thousands of visitors every month of the year.
A native of Lafayette, Louisiana, Robert Dafford briefly studied art at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, until he was drafted into the US Navy during the Vietnam War. He served as an illustrator and draftsman aboard the U.S.S. Independence in the Mediterranean, spending his free time in Rome, Athens, and Paris, where he studied the master painters of Europe. Dafford also points to Norman Rockwell and the Pre-Raphaelites as important influences on his style, which he has described as “hyper-realism on a large-scale.”
In recognition of his contribution to public art and local history, Shawnee State University awarded Dafford a Doctorate of Humane Letters in October 2003.
While working on the Portsmouth murals, Dafford hired Herb Roe, a young native of Scioto County, to assist on the project. Roe went onto to work with Dafford for fifteen years, before embarking upon his own successful independent career. Roe’s original mural work now appears on the walls of the Portsmouth High School Athletic Complex, and some of his smaller canvas work, including a portrait of Dafford painting the Branch Rickey mural, first appeared in the Scioto Historical app, beginning in the summer of 2013.
Dafford once explained the significance of his work by pointing to its transformative effect on the residents of Portsmouth. The flood wall defenses, what Dafford compared to “a medieval prison wall,” had become “a piece of art that has something to do with the people who live there. It’s their art. It’s their history. It’s their ancestry. And it changes their feeling about where they live.”
For visitors to Portsmouth, the murals help orient them to the history of the city and the larger Scioto Valley; it leaves them with a new appreciation for the significance of this old river town.
Philip Eil, Interview with Robert Dafford, Point Pleasant West Virginia (4 August 2010), Shawnee State University’s Digital History Lab, Clark Memorial Library, Portsmouth, Ohio.
Robert L. Morton, “Portsmouth Murals – A Tourist Attraction – How It All Began – Part One,” AAA Today Vol. 11, No. 4 (Winter 1996): 4-7.
Robert L. Morton, “The Floodwall Murals: How it All Began – Part Two,” AAA Today Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 4-7.
Liana Voia, “Interview: Robert Dafford’s Murals and Fine Art” (18 January 2013). http://www.blogtalkradio.com/multiplearts/2013/01/18/robert-daffords-murals-and-fine-art
Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., is a Professor of American History and Coordinator of the History and Appalachian Studies programs at Shawnee State University. As Director of the Shawnee Digital History Lab, he is the founding editor and developer of the Scioto Historical mobile app and website, a public history project that explores the history of Portsmouth, Ohio, and the surrounding Appalachian region. Visit sciotohistorical.org to continue your exploration of Portsmouth and Ohio’s Little Smokies.