02 May 2023 Making his mark in Morrilton
Story and photos by Morgan Zimmerman
After a dedication ceremony in which he signed his work, Jason White gazed at the newest mural to be completed in downtown Morrilton and said, “I’ll miss it — the project and the community.” The Searcy-based mural artist began work on the mural titled “Morrilton – Small City. No Limits.” in January. He completed work on the 2,250-square-foot public art installation, located at 204 W. Railroad St., at the end of February.
The design was inspired by a vision of the late Charles Louis Ormond, who operated his insurance company out of the building where the mural is located for many years and was an important figure in economic and community development for Morrilton. Before his passing in 2017, Ormond had made improvements to the wall in hopes of eventually installing a mural. During his life, he was an Air Force veteran, a former state legislator and a farmer, among other things. He was also instrumental in the development of the Morrilton municipal airport and was passionate about all things related to transportation.
Since his passing, Ormond’s daughters, Shannon Ormond and Scarlett Ormond Phifer have maintained ownership of the building, and still employ their father’s long-time staff member, Theresa Paladino, who oversees the daily operations of the business. “Charles often said he wanted this building to hold a mural as a banner to promote vital elements of Morrilton and Conway County,” Paladino said.
“Dad would be so happy as the mural has everything he loved, trains, planes and grains,” added Phifer.
White, who is known for his work with flags across the state, has been working as a professional artist for seven years, even though he knew he wanted to be an artist from a young age. When Main Street Morrilton put out the request for proposals seeking an artist with experience designing large-scale installments with “patriotic and historical themes,” White knew he was a good fit. “I really love to do the American flag. I feel like every community needs one,” he said.
Further drawing him into the project was the town of Morrilton itself. He has traveled all over the state painting murals for many small and large towns. However, he and his family spend a lot of time hiking and camping at Petit Jean State Park, and the Morrilton area is special to them. White spent time with the Main Street Morrilton Public Art Committee and Ormond’s family to really get a feel for the meaning behind the mural before finalizing his design, which includes a large American flag, the city’s name and slogan, a small airplane, a large steam engine and nods to local crops that are grown throughout Conway County.
The star of the show is the depiction of the famous Union Pacific 4014 steam locomotive known as “Big Boy.” The train, which is the largest operating steam locomotive in the world, was delivered to Union Pacific in December 1941 and retired in December 1961, having traveled 1,031,205 miles in its 20 years. In 2019 after an extensive restoration, Big Boy went on a tour of the Union Pacific system to commemorate the transcontinental railroad’s 150th anniversary. That tour included a stop in Morrilton, and White’s depiction of it has already created a stir in train enthusiast groups throughout the area. “I have painted a lot of trains in my time, but this is by far the largest one I’ve ever done,” he said. The image of the completed train is approximately 18 feet tall, just over two feet taller than the actual train. “One thing I really love about it is if you stand at the right angle, you can see the Morrilton Train Depot in the background,” said White.
Main Street Morrilton commissioned the mural, which was partially funded by a Public Art Grant from the Arkansas Department of Heritage, and it is the second public installation in Morrilton’s historic downtown district over the past year. “We were thrilled when we received Jason’s proposal. We knew right away that his aesthetic was exactly what we were looking for to fill this space,” said Main Street Morrilton Public Art Committee Chair Morgan Zimmerman. “This mural is something we can all be proud of,” said Mayor Allen Lipsmeyer. The City of Morrilton matched the grant with money from their annually budgeted public art fund.