Anyone who wants to see what remains of the New Carrollton mural — officially titled “Prince George’s County” — must head to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and journey to Talbot County.
There, you will find a sign painter named Jim Richardson. If you have ever visited the picturesque town of St. Michaels, you have seen Jim’s work. He estimates he’s painted 95 percent of the signs on Talbot Street. He is known for his fancy wooden signs: carved, flower-bedecked, brightened with gold leaf.
Jim did not start out as a sign painter. He studied fine art at Syracuse University, and after a stint in the Army, he sold watercolors in Annapolis.
“I had a small art gallery on Prince George Street called Watermark Gallery,” Jim told Answer Man. “I would go out on a nice day and sit on the sidewalk or sit up at St. John’s College and I would paint. I was pretty prolific.”
Jim never made a lot of money, but he made enough to support himself. One day, he and his wife, Martha Hamlyn, were perusing the Baltimore Sun when a notice caught their eye: The Prince George’s County Arts Council was accepting bids to create a large mural in New Carrollton to celebrate the county’s history.
“They interviewed me, and I think they liked my estimate more than anything else,” Jim said. “They gave me the job.”
Jim had never painted anything that large before. He rented space in an unused parochial school in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood. “I had the whole school to myself,” he said. “It was a wonderful place to paint.”
Jim’s original vision was for the entire mural to depict tobacco production, which for centuries had been the county’s economic engine.
“Well, the committee wanted to put the racecourse in and the theater that had just opened up,” Jim said. “Someone else wanted the Metro station.” Jim obliged. After two months of work, the mural — painted on 52 high-quality plywood boards — was complete. In September 1981, a rigging company installed it on the side of the Sheraton on Annapolis Road.
Jim invited friends and family to the dedication. He looked at the program and saw that although many politicians would be speaking, his name was not included anywhere.
“I seriously thought they made a mistake,” Jim said, laughing. He went up to one of the organizers and asked if he could say a few words at the dedication of his mural.
“She said, ‘Oh, no. We don’t recognize the artist.’ I said, ‘You are going to recognize the artist in this case.’ ”
Jim was given five minutes to thank his friends for coming.
Two years later, Jim got a call from New Carrollton’s public- works department telling him the mural had been taken down. Did he want the 52 panels or could they trash them? Jim enlisted a friend and collected them in a rented U-Haul.
No one could explain why the mural had been removed, though Jim said years later he heard a rumor that some in the community objected to the fieldworkers in the painting, thinking they were slaves.
“I had no intention of demeaning anyone,” Jim said. “I think people who work in the fields are quite honorable.”
The experience kind of put Jim off art. After running a general store in the small Eastern Shore town of Claiborne, he became successful as a sign painter.
Over the years, the mural was “repurposed.” Jim used some of the panels to build cabinets. Some were nailed to sheds.
“The biggest part is my porch ceiling in my house,” Jim said. “We sleep out on the porch in the summer months. I love lying there and looking up at the ceiling and seeing all these wonderful tobacco leaves and flowers.”
Jim is 66 now, old enough, he says, to retire from sign painting. He’s planning on getting back to fine art.
Have a question about the Washington area? Write firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.