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Cordley mural gets new paint, tells old story

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History tends to grow dimmer with time, but one story from Lawrence’s past was literally fading with the years.

The mural on the exterior wall of Cordley Elementary School, which depicts a story involving the school’s namesake and a runaway slave known as Lizzie, had weathered in the nearly 15 years since it was painted.

A recently completed addition and renovation of the 100-year-old school, located at 1837 Vermont St., did not forget the mural on the north facade. Despite an addition to the school’s northeast side that intersects with the mural, the wall was left intact and funds were allocated to completely restore the mural, said Lawrence artist Dave Loewenstein.

Lawrence muralist Dave Loewenstein tosses a paint brush in a bucket as he repaints his mural, "A Thousand Miles Away," on the north side of Cordley Elementary School, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. The mural depicts an Underground Railroad scene involving a slave named Lizzie and Lawrence abolitionists Rev. Richard Cordley (not pictured) and his wife Mary.

Lawrence muralist Dave Loewenstein tosses a paint brush in a bucket as he repaints his mural, "A Thousand Miles Away," on the north side of Cordley Elementary School, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. The mural depicts an Underground Railroad scene involving a slave named Lizzie and Lawrence abolitionists Rev. Richard Cordley (not pictured) and his wife Mary. by Nick Krug

“Principal (Scott) Cinnamon was really insistent that the mural be a part of the new school, and you can see they worked around it,” Loewenstein said as he added fresh paint to the mural this week.

The mural depicts a story from Lawrence’s Underground Railroad, represented by the railroad tracks that run across the bottom, Loewenstein said. It tells of the time Richard Cordley, a Massachusetts abolitionist who was new to Lawrence in 1859, was asked to harbor a runaway slave named Lizzie.

Cordley’s house — located on Vermont Street about two blocks from the school — was thought to be a safer option for Lizzie because authorities may check other homes first. The circumstances inspired a quote attributed to Cordley in 1859, on the topic of putting one’s theoretical beliefs into action:

“It is easy to be brave a thousand miles away. But now I must face the question at short range.”

The mural, titled “A Thousand Miles Away,” shows Lizzie’s concealment at the Cordleys’ house and eventual safe escape to Canada. The idea that even heroes get scared is a great lesson for kids, Loewenstein said.

“We love that quote because it says so much about the challenges, fear and responsibility of engaging in work like this — for social justice,” he said.

Loewenstein originally painted the mural in 2001 after compiling sketches of the story that Cordley students made at the time. He has spent about two weeks restoring the mural with the help of another Lawrence artist, Nicholas Ward. The restoration was originally planned for the summer, but Loewenstein said he’s glad that in the end he’s working on it while school is in session.

“It’s really been better to have students around,” he said. “They ask a million questions.”

Loewenstein said the kids know him and the story really well now, and he’ll hear them discussing it among themselves on the blacktop. The kids have even gone as far as to offer him tips or critiques as he’s painting, Loewenstein said. In addition to the story itself, it’s good for the students to see the process.

“I think it’s really cool for kids to see artists at work,” he said. “We see actors perform and musicians play, but we don’t often see visual artists at work.”

The repainting of the mural is almost done, and Loewenstein said he plans to add the final varnish to complete the project on Wednesday.

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