Canvass on the Comstock: Painting Virginia City’s story

A variety of murals on the history of Virginia City is in the process of being painted by local artists.

A variety of murals on the history of Virginia City is in the process of being painted by local artists.

VIRGINIA CITY — What has for years been an unremarkable wall in a parking lot, after a fresh coat of paint this summer began to look like a canvas to one local artist.

“I was walking to work one morning and looked up it at,” said Corrie Zam-Northan, an employee at the Bucket of Blood Saloon and stained-glass artist in Virginia City. “I said to Marshall (McBride, owner of the saloon), ‘you just prepped that for a mural.’ He said, ‘Go ahead.’”

So she spent late nights into the morning hours creating a concept for the wall. And she gathered her people, fellow artists and friends in Virginia City, to help bring it to fruition.

They added their vision to hers and sketched it, larger than life, onto the wall.

A series of images, including the Piper’s Opera House, Fourth Ward School, V&T Engine No. 22, the seal of Nevada and other Comstock icons, are included on the mural, along with some text explaining the historical significance.

“A bunch of people who come here have heard the stories behind the town but they haven’t seen it,” said Shannon Parsons, a 2014 Virginia City High School graduate who was recommended to the project by her art teacher. “You can connect what you see here with the history.”

Zam-Northan agreed.

“It’s almost like its own little museum,” she said.

Most Tuesday mornings you can find them all in the parking lot, taking a break from their jobs and businesses to bring their inspiration to life. Some come before or after work to paint, as well.

They divide up — some people taking a certain section, others a certain subject.

Donna McNeeley, a graphic artist and painter who moved to Virginia City two years ago, is in charge of the V&T Engine No. 22, the Inyo, also known as Brass Betsy.

“I volunteered to do the train,” said the owner of Donna McNeeley Creative. “Since I moved to Virginia City, I have had a train fetish. I think they’re beautiful. I think they’re a work of art in themselves. It’s a challenge, but I like a challenge.”

When painting the places and things that exist today, the artists use color. When representing historic people or places, they use a sepia tone. In some images, they use both. For instance, the Piper’s Opera House, which has been restored and remains in operation, is in color. The dancers in front are in sepia. The Fourth Ward School is also in color, while students from the graduating classes are in sepia.

The students in the mural are taken from actual portraits, as is a group of early miners.

That adds to the pressure, said artist Stephane Cellier, who is an art instructor and caretaker with his wife, Sylvie, of St. Mary’s Art Center. With his expertise in portrait painting, he’s painting all of the faces.

He said many of the descendants of the people in the pictures still live in Virginia City or will see the mural.

“That’s why I take the time to make them look good,” he said. “They have to look like themselves. I don’t want people to be unhappy, saying, ‘You messed up my grandfather.’ These are real people.”

While it likely won’t be completely finished, the mural will be debuted during Virginia City’s celebration of Nevada’s sesquicentennial, which will feature a barbecue, parade and other events, on Oct. 31. Work will continue next year onto an adjacent wall.

The artists said they will continue to see the project through.

“The mural is going to be here for ages and ages. It’s a source of pride for the people who live here,” said Alexi Sober, owner of the The Core restaurant. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a legacy like that?”


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