Visual Arts

Tom Eblen: New Louis Armstrong mural an effort to overcome a disaster and a near-miss

Sergio Odeith, a Portuguese mural artist, began work Monday on a 30-by-70-foot mural of jazz great Louis Armstrong and his trumpet on the side of Lighthouse Ministries, 185 Elm Tree Lane. Photo by Tom Eblen |
Sergio Odeith, a Portuguese mural artist, began work Monday on a 30-by-70-foot mural of jazz great Louis Armstrong and his trumpet on the side of Lighthouse Ministries, 185 Elm Tree Lane. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Jazz great Louis Armstrong played at a private party at the old Phoenix Hotel in 1961 and, according to some people's memories, he might have performed at the Lyric Theatre in its heyday.

Now, a larger-than-life Satchmo is starting a more public and permanent gig between those two historic venues.

Portuguese artist Sergio Odeith began work this week on a photo-realistic mural of Armstrong and his trumpet on the 30-foot by 70-foot south wall of Lighthouse Ministries, 185 Elm Tree Lane.

Odeith is here as part of the fifth annual PRHBTN festival, which brings renowned street artists from all over the world to Lexington to create spray-painted murals.

This is Odeith's second trip to PRHBTN. He returned because a mural of running horses that he painted on a Bryan Avenue building in November 2013 was accidently painted over in June.

Entrepreneur Griffin VanMeter's North Limestone Community Development Corp. had contributed $2,500 toward the first mural on a building now occupied by Kentucky for Kentucky, another VanMeter venture, which sells Kentucky-themed merchandise.

But on June 9, as VanMeter was in Louisville to speak about "community place-making" and the value of public art, contractors he had hired to prime the wall beside Odeith's mural for another piece of art painted over it instead.

"A picture of that mural was in my slide show as it was, unbeknownst to me, being covered up," he said. "We just had this kind of 'Oh crap' moment."

VanMeter quickly emailed an apology to Odeith and offered to bring him back to Lexington for another commission.

"He was really cool about it," VanMeter said. "He was like, 'These things happen.'"

But as Odeith returned Friday to paint a mural of singer Billie Holiday on a wall of the Limestone Street building that houses the Institute 193 art gallery and the French restaurant Le Deauville, the building's owner backed out.

"These murals are almost like tattoos," VanMeter said. "They have to really speak to you, because you live with them for a long time."

That set off a desperate search for another available wall. VanMeter posted pleas on Facebook and contacted Lexington mural artist Dani Greene. She suggested the wall at Lighthouse Ministries, a social service agency, and approached its executive director, Tay Henderson, on VanMeter's behalf.

Because that wall is bigger and more horizontal, Odeith decided the Billie Holiday image wouldn't work. He suggested an image of Armstrong and his trumpet instead.

"I was elated," said Henderson, who has operated Lighthouse Ministries from the building for 12 years. "He's a world-renowned artist and he's such a nice guy. I love his idea. I think it will help bring the community together."

During a break from painting, Odeith, 39, said the Armstrong image will create a positive tone for people who come to Lighthouse Ministries for food and help rebuilding their lives. He said the image will include the title of Amstrong's famous song, What a Wonderful World, and a message of love and encouragement.

"Like the Lincoln mural, I think this piece could really become an iconic image for Lexington," VanMeter said.

Kentucky for Kentucky is paying about $10,000 toward the mural's cost, including paint, lift machines, Odeith's travel costs and artist's fee. It is also making a $1,000 donation to Lighthouse Ministries.

VanMeter said he hopes to have a dedication ceremony for the mural early next week, as Odeith is finishing it. He was supposed to have begun Saturday, but bad weather, the search for a new wall and prep work delayed the start until Tuesday.

Odeith must leave town by next Wednesday; he has two commissions scheduled in Charleston, S.C., and one in Portugal, VanMeter said.

Despite his first mural being painted over, and almost not having a wall for his second, Odeith said he loves Lexington and was happy to return.

"I've been telling to Griffin and all the people that he was missing me," he said. "So he found a way to bring me back."