Eight years ago, a mural was painted on the north wall of the American Legion building in Cambridge. Since then, parts of the mural have been damaged by cracking bricks and stucco that has come off. Thanks to a grant from the Story County Community Foundation, as well as funds from the Cambridge American Legion, efforts to restore the mural are nearing completion.
Shawn Palek of Slater has been working on the mural since this past spring. He was contacted a year ago by the American Legion, who inquired if he was interested in restoring the town’s mural. Scott DeYoung, Cambridge American Legion president, said maintaining the appearance of the mural is important to the Legion. The mural gets a lot of recognition from community members, as well as those visiting or traveling through the community. Many stop and take pictures of the mural.
“It’s a great entryway to our downtown,” DeYoung said.
At first, Palek was a little hesitant about the project, since the mural is approximatley 1,500 square feet and reaches more than 30 feet in height.
“I don’t dig heights, and I didn’t want to do it on an extension ladder,” Palek said. “But I’m always up for a challenge.”
With the assistance of a scissor lift, Palek has been able to deal with his fear of heights during the restoration process. He has been using an airbrush to bring out the details in the mural, as well as give it new life. While he was hoping to have the mural completed by now, a wet spring and hot spells during the summer delayed some of the work. So far, he has logged approximately 30-32 hours on the project, with roughly 3-5 more to go.
“Shawn’s done a great job and has really made it stand out,” DeYoung said.
A challenge Palek has faced while working on the mural is he can only work on 6-foot sections at a time while on the scissor lift. He said with a mural this size, details have to be exaggerated so they can be seen from farther away. The large deck of the scissor lift allows him to get several feel away from the area he is painting, which helps.
Throughout the restoration process, Palek has been careful to maintain the original look of the mural, as created by artists John Neal and Ken Tynan back in 2005.
“Bringing it back to life and honoring the veterans, while being respectful to the artists who created it,” Palek said are his goals for the project.
A career in painting
Palek has been painting for more than 24 years and has been doing it professionally for the past 18 years. His first experiences in painting occurred during high school, when he would paint images on the back of denim jackets for his friends - a 20-hour endeavor that he said would take him much less time today.
For his 19th birthday, his mom bought him an airbrush. Initially, much of what he learned about airbrushing came from a woman who worked at an airbrush store that used to be in Ames. When it got to the point where Palek’s questions were beyond the knowledge of the woman, she suggested he take an airbrush class at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC).
At the time, he was nearing the completion of his degree in criminal justice at DMACC. Soon after taking the airbrush class, he decided he no longer wanted to pursue a career in criminal justice. Instead, he wanted to become a commercial artist.
Over the years, he has worked a number of painting jobs, some of which involved starting businesses with fellow artists. Many of the jobs have involved airbrushing T-shirts, including a business he started in 1992 with a friend. He can paint anything, from portraits to animals, on just about any type of surface. His flexibility as an artist is what makes him stand out from other artists who typically focus on one subject to paint or only paint on one medium.
“Not to sound conceded, but I can paint circles around other artists,” Palek said.
This year alone, he has copleted 357 paintings. He also attends numerous art shows throughout the year and has even put on a number of art shows himself.
What Palek said he enjoys most about being an artist is each day offers new opportunities. He does not have to go sit at some corporate job and do the same thing over and over again.
“I wake up in the morning and let the universe unfold as it will,” Palek said. “I’m all for the adventure and living in the moment.”
Community members may donate toward the restoration of the mural by sending checks to:
Cambridge American Legion
P.O. Box 142
Cambridge, Iowa 50046
205 Water St.
Cambridge, Iowa 50046