A lasting monument to the spirit of the American Worker, The American Mural Project at Whiting Mills in Winsted began 17 years ago by artist Ellen Griesedieck.
Ellen Griesedieck is a ball of energy. She is a slight and outgoing woman who radiates optimism and warmth. Now well-known as the founder and creator of the formidable American Mural Project, Griesedieck’s path to the art world was circuitous but logical.
Born in St. Louis, Griesedieck was one of five children, all of whom loved sports. (Even today, her tomboy roots are quite evident). After receiving a BFA from the University of Colorado, Griesedieck moved to San Juan Capistrano, California to work in the marketing department of Peterson Publishing Company, where she soon realized that she “was not a good employee”. She chafed at the need to conform to corporate norms and her lack of creative independence. So she ventured into the freelance world, designing logos for tennis players, and photographing sports events for companies like International Group Management and Sports Illustrated magazine.
Griesedieck was fascinated by athletic achievement. Following several days as Björn Borg’s guide on his first trip to New York City, (where she introduced him to the subway system), she decided to specialize in photographing individual athletes. By the early 1970s, she had become a fixture of the tennis world and was hired by Sports Illustrated to document John Newcomb, Billy Jean King, as well as Borg. During the mid-1970s, Griesedieck also spent a lot of time with Muhammed Ali. She often ran with him at 4 am, with a car shining its headlights to light their path and bodyguards following close behind. She recounts Ali’s sincerity, and the time that he greeted a tour bus full of children, and how he patiently listened and dispensed bits of advice to each child. When Ali died in 2016, the press called Griesedieck for her personal memories of the legendary fighter and social activist.
When Griesedieck shifted her professional attention to the race car world, she also determined her fate. During races at Le Mans, the Indy 500, and NASCAR, she loved watching the action in the pit stops. But back in the 1970s, the Indy bosses would not allow women in the garage, and NASCAR would not allow women in the pits. So Griesedieck donned a jumpsuit, put her hair up in a cap, wore a pair of Ray Bans and entered the pit to get the images she wanted. None of the NASCAR men around her realized it was Ellen. On the last day of the shoot, she relished pulling off her cap as she passed the chauvinistic guard to reveal her long curly hair and her identity.
While Griesedieck was establishing herself as a sports photographer, Sam Posey was attending the Rhode Island School of Design and taking every opportunity to race cars. Griesedieck and Posey met in San Juan Capistrano. Their third date was at a Le Mans race where Posey was driving a Ferrari. Posey grew up in Sharon, Connecticut, so when the couple married, they settled there. Since then, other family members have moved nearby, forming an enclave of relatives and close friends.
By the 1980s, with two small children at home, Griesedieck was not so able to travel to photo shoots. Posey had met their neighbor, the legendary modernist, Frank Stella when the artist designed a BMW racing car. Stella and his wife, Harriet and their two children became good friends of the Posey/Griesedieck family. On one fateful occasion, Stella invited Griesedieck and Posey to Polich Tallix, an art foundry in upstate New York, to watch a metal pouring for one of his large-scale, three-dimensional wall pieces. Griesedieck took many photographs of the foundry workers, including one of five men as they lined up after a long day’s dirty, and exacting work. She decided to make a painting based on that photograph. When Stella saw her painting, he said, “This is what you should be doing.” As Griesedieck witnessed Stella working on such a grand scale, she was reminded of her experience in California photographing the construction of a Boeing 747. Both enterprises involve the articulation of large volumes of space. These seminal influences led her to the mural format.
Like Diego Rivera’s River Rouge mural, Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, and Simon Rodia’s Watts Tower, the American Mural Project is an artwork for Everyman. Now seventeen years into the making, Griesedieck has taken her love of athletic teamwork and applied it to the American populace in the work. Though she refers to the project as a mural, it has emphatic sculptural elements. Assemblages of colorful objects connected with glue, screws, and resin form clusters of imagery that will spill off the painted walls in the final installation. The multi-dimensional construction recalls Stella’s monumental sculpture and three-dimensional paintings while accommodating the various forms of expressions offered by students from throughout the United States.
To date, ten thousand school children from twenty-eight states have participated in creating the massive forty-eight feet tall and one hundred twenty feet long, three-dimensional painting. They contribute in various ways. Sometimes they paint directly onto the panels, sometimes they donate objects from their lives or mementos of their activities to the sculptural elements of the work, or they may be memorialized by Griesedieck as portraits she incorporates into the work. Through their involvement with the American Mural Project, children learn that they have a voice, they can leave their mark, and that team work can lead to amazing accomplishments.
Griesedieck’s positive “can do” attitude is evident throughout the American Mural Project, from the formation of the non-profit foundation to the inclusion of the creative contributors to the spontaneity and responsiveness that imbues the entire process. Her enthusiasm is contagious and has attracted many impressive supporters. One of the first contributors was Paul Newman, an old friend. Posey had given Newman race cars lessons, and Griesedieck designed the first Newman’s Own salad dressing bottle label. Newman encouraged Griesedieck to think about a permanent location for the American Mural Project. Once, when driving back from Lyme Rock after a race, Newman saw a vacant hospital that was languishing, and he suggested she try to buy it. Though that was not the property she settled on, Newman was very encouraging about the potential for the American Mural Project to be an impetus for both creative and educational opportunities on a permanent basis.
The American Mural Project is a tribute to the American worker. So the location of the mural needed to be local, and it needed to be meaningful. The late nineteenth century Whiting Mills in Winsted was a hosiery factory that employed generations of workers. Griesedieck knew immediately that it would be the ideal home for the mural, and the attendant educational programs.
In 2014, Griesedieck, the American Mural Project board members and her small staff began the “Raise the Roof Capital Campaign”. Their goal was to fund a new, more elevated roof on the main factory building in Winsted to allow for the exceptional height of the mural. They raised the money with the help of many individuals and nonprofit entities and “Meet the Governor’s Challenge”, a one million dollar matching grant. This year, the winning construction bid will be announced, and Phase I, the retrofitting of the mill buildings to accommodate “the largest painting in the country” will be realized. Phase II will focus on an atrium, visitor center, and classrooms. Phase III will kick off a drive for the American Mural Project garden, an educational, natural environment that will be designed and built in part by students, and maintained as a living component of the project as a whole.
An important part of the American Mural Project’s success is collaboration – with individuals and groups. The American Mural Project has partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, NASA, HealthCorps®, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Connecticut, as well as numerous public and private school teachers and students.
At this time, the mural panels, and some of the sculptural elements are in Griesedieck’s studio in Sharon. Enormous, muscular figures populate the surfaces, like Greek gods who have come down from Olympus. Often referring to her photographs of the subjects, Griesedieck uses large brushes, a vivid palette, and big, sweeping strokes to effect a sense of action. It is clear that she begins with a general sense of the design and then works spontaneously to bring the forms to life. A schematic drawing shows the overall concept for the finished mural, but it is unlikely that this passionate and persuasive artist will stick to a rigid plan. She will want to let it evolve organically, making room for new ideas and unexpected opportunities so that everyone can participant in this lasting monument to the spirit of the American worker.