An outside wall of a two-story brick building in downtown Amherst, Ohio, was a blank canvas until local artist Mike Sekletar came along. A Sons of The American Legion member, he wanted to use his talents to pay tribute to all veterans, and decided to do so by creating a mural of Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph of the Iwo Jima flag-raising, taken Feb. 23, 1945.
"I wanted to give back to veterans, and for me that's through art and painting," says Sekletar, whose father, John, is a Vietnam War Navy veteran and member of American Legion Post 118 in Amherst. "The (Iwo Jima) photo is so iconic. Everyone has seen it, and it signifies something different for everyone. For me, it signifies freedom."
On Veterans Day, nearly 1,000 people gathered outside the Park Avenue building to dedicate the mural.
Sekletar's work began last August, immediately after he received city approval and was promised wall space from the owner of a downtown office building, local attorney Frank Janik. Soon Sekletar and a friend, Ryan Shannon, were up on scaffolding, painting a 20-by-35-foot re-creation of the flag-raising photograph. The project took nearly three months and more than 250 hours.
The two artists prepped the side of the building by painting it a light gray, then used an overhead projector during evening hours to outline the five Marines and Navy hospital corpsman. Once the outlining was complete, the mural took shape as Sekletar and Shannon shaded in the figures using dramatic shades of gray, black and white.
"It's such an important photo that I wanted to get it absolutely perfect," Sekletar said. "I didn't use color because I wanted to stay true to the original photo, which is black and white. Plus, a black-and-white photo is just more striking, and the image itself doesn't need to be color because it's so strong."
Yet after another look at the building and the mural, Sekletar rethought the use of color through a symbol. "I thought a real flag at the top of the building would just set the mural off," he says. He decided to incorporate a U.S. flag that would fly from a 14-foot aluminum pole extending from the building's roof line.
"We have a 48-star flag to stay true to the photo," Sekletar said. "Now, the only color in the mural is the flag, because that's what the photo is about – the American flag lives and carries on."
Sekletar's SAL Squadron 118 donated four flags, including the one currently flying; the others are backups. And although Sekletar personally financed the mural, additional support came from a few private donations and from passersby who put money in a plastic tip jar attached by rope to the scaffolding. The local Sherwin-Williams store also donated paint and brushes.
"Everyone in the town, especially my post and my father, has really been amazing and supportive of the project," Sekletar said. "When Ryan and I were outside painting, people stopped by and thanked us for what we were doing. But I would say, ‘No, thank you. This is for you and for everyone who has served.' I even met a handful of World War II veterans who came into town to see us working on the mural. It's just been a very gratifying and amazing experience."
A granite plaque on the far right of the mural reads, "We will never forget the courage, honor and sacrifice of the men and women who served our country for our freedom."
To maintain the painting, Sekletar says he plans to raise funds by selling personalized paving stones that will eventually be set in front of the mural.
"People ask me if I'll paint another mural like this, and I say maybe on a smaller scale, because I want this one to be the only one like it," Sekletar says. "I want it to be one of a kind. I really feel privileged and honored to be able to do something like this for our veterans."
Cameran Richardson is assistant web editor for The American Legion.
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