This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website.
WEST CHESTER — If someone happened to find themselves walking down Middle Alley by the new Split Rail Tavern in West Chester, they would probably take little notice of the side of the building.
On that wall are the remnants of a mural painted by John Howard 20 years ago. No one would notice unless they stopped and actually took a look.
But one person did see it, and that’s artist Terry DeAngelo, who captured the decaying, flaking mural in an oil painting now on display at the Church Street Gallery.
“I was walking in the alley … and I said ‘wow,’” DeAngelo said. “It’s this magnificent image and I think also because it’s so old and worn.”
The mural, which has fallen into such disrepair, is the last remaining evidence of Howard’s artistic flair in the borough, but has now, in a way, been preserved thanks to DeAngelo.
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He worked on the painting for close to six months and, though the painting looks almost identical, DeAngelo did throw in his own personal touch with a shadowy figure under the fire-escape staircase.
“I just felt it needed something under the fire escape,” DeAngelo said. “Originally I was going to add somebody, some ominous-looking personage coming down (the stairs). But that went out the window.”
Howard, who spent only a year in the borough from 1995 to 1996, is probably little remembered 20 years later.
Though that’s not to say he didn’t ruffle a couple of feathers during that timeframe.
“He immediately started scouting out places to do his street art,” said Diane LeBold, a resident of West Chester. “Most of it he did with permission.”
Howard lived with LeBold during his stay in West Chester and knew her from grad school in California.
When she was walking by the Church Street Gallery on Monday, she saw DeAngelo’s painting of Howard’s rundown mural and went in to tell the owners, who in turn invited her to DeAngelo’s artist discussion Thursday night.
During the discussion, she took time to regale the audience about the one-of-a-kind Howard.
“John was quite a character,” LeBold said. “He showed up here with a box of spray paints and a stack of stencils cut out of Brazilian cereal boxes.”
Howard became a legend in São Paulo, Brazil, with his early involvement in the area’s graffiti movement during his 23-year stay there.
He brought that work to West Chester in 1995 with his work on the borough’s utility poles, which brought him notoriety with PECO.
“The main thing that caught the attention of the public, and PECO, was when he started to put colorful figures on utility poles,” LeBold said. “PECO ultimately noticed and they started objecting and told him to paint brown over the figures. He refused.”
LeBold took photographs of Howard’s work throughout his stay in the borough and still has them.
Unfortunately, and what she regrets now, is that she somehow never photographed his mural on Middle Alley.
“It just breaks my heart,” she said.
However, though it isn’t the vibrant, colorful mural it once was, DeAngleo’s oil painting will preserve Howard’s work for years to come — even if the actual mural fades away to nothing.
And LeBold believes that’s how Howard would have wanted it.
“He knew his art was disposable and he was fine with that,” she said. “To him, the art wasn’t about preserving it through the ages. It was about making it accessible to people and people getting engaged in it — something different, something unusual or something funny — and lighten up their day.”