Baileys Harbor’s Emerging Mural…Destiny or Coincidence?

(Left to right) Gary Nelson, owner of Nelson’s Shopping Center; Nancy Rafal, coordinator of the Baileys Harbor Community Mural Project; and Ram Rojas, mural artist; are working together to showcase and celebrate Baileys Harbor’s history, nature, and culture.
The trio stand beside depictions of Phyllis and Gordy Nelson, who opened Nelson’s Shopping Center in 1945.
Photo by Len Villano.

If, as some people believe, there are no coincidences in life, then the giant mural emerging on the north wall of the Nelson Shopping Center in Baileys Harbor was destined to be.

Consider: In 1959, a four-year-old boy in Caracas, Venezuela, showed a talent for drawing and painting. Ten years later, the National Academy of Art in Caracas began a program for gifted young artists, and Ram Rojas was chosen for the first class.

When he graduated at 17, he was recruited by the Vedanta Book Trust, a publishing group with an international art department, to work on illustrating the Veda, sacred Hindu texts thousands of years old, in a Renaissance style. Their work also included paintings for the Palace of Gold, a Hindu temple often referred to as the American Taj Mahal, in – of all places – Moundsville, West Virginia. Years of travel and study in Italy and India followed before the program ended abruptly, stranding the young artists in Los Angeles.

“I was lost,” Rojas says. “I had a wonderful education in art and international work experience, but knew very little about living in the ‘real world.’ I traveled around the U.S., working wherever I could and met many people who helped my career. Finally, in 1989, I was invited to come to the Peninsula Gallery in Ephraim (since closed), and I fell in love with Door County.”

Over the next 11 years, Rojas painted and taught throughout the county, living in Baileys Harbor, Sister Bay and Egg Harbor as well as Ephraim before restoring an old farmhouse in Sturgeon Bay in 2000.

The current progress of the mural. Photo by Katie Sikora.

Steven Smith, a wealthy Texas businessman, came to Door County in 2004, searching for an artist to paint a portrait of his extended family as a Christmas surprise for his mother. After talking with several of the best-known local artists, he stopped at Base Camp at Ecology Sports for a cup of coffee and spotted one of Rojas’s paintings on the wall. He’d found the artist he was looking for.

The woman who received that painting as a gift was Lois Smith of Wittenberg, Wisconsin, the widow of Darwin Smith, the former CEO of Kimberly-Clark. When Wittenberg began to experience the hard times that have befallen many small towns, Smith thought of the towns of Chemainus on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and Lake Placid in Florida, where dozens of murals have created tourist attractions that brought new life to failing economies. Asked to suggest an artist who might create a mural in Wittenberg, she recommended the one she knew personally – Rojas.

The mural he completed in Wittenberg in 2006 covers four walls and depicts the foundations of the village’s faith. It includes an angel more than two stories high, the Lutheran minister who founded the village, seven current churches, three cherubs and hidden pictures of birds and animals native to the area. Rojas’s work inspired a book, An American Fresco, probably the only one ever dedicated to a single mural.

Nancy Rafal is a Baileys Harbor poet whose work has been widely published. She is especially inspired by the poems of the late Lorine Niedecker, who lived in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. In the late 1960s, Niedecker visited The Ridges Sanctuary and made it the subject of a long poem, “Wintergreen Ridge.” Rafal hoped to find a way to honor Niedecker locally, especially during 2012, the 75th anniversary of The Ridges’ founding.

In 2009, Rafal participated in the Lorine Niedecker Wisconsin Poetry Festival. On that trip, she saw a mural covered with Niedecker’s verse. The following fall, she met Rojas at the dedication of his mural in the Schoolhouse at The Clearing in Ellison Bay. She knew she’d found the perfect way to honor Niedecker in Baileys Harbor – a wall inscribed with her poetry, painted by Rojas. He immediately committed to the project, and Rafal approached the owners of the largest vacant wall in town – Gary and Adam Nelson of Nelson Shopping Center.

The mural depicts Door County historical figure Emma Toft. Photo by Len Villano.

Gary, a life-long resident of Baileys Harbor, liked the idea of the mural and was even more excited when Rojas suggested it also presented an opportunity to preserve elements of the town’s history. Niedecker will still be represented by lines of her poem about The Ridges scattered across the 96’ x 22’ painting, but it will also include images of Cana Island, Emma Toft, Phyllis and Gordy Nelson with his apple peeler, Adam Nelson, the third generation involved with the store, and the Brann Brothers Store. (Nelsons’ store was built on the footings of the original Brann Store, which burned and was rebuilt across the street on the present site of the Baileys Harbor Cornerstone Pub.)

Rafal has a long-standing interest in history, as well as poetry. In the mid-1990s, when she was teaching sixth grade in Lombard, Illinois, she encouraged her students to research Peter Hoy, a local dairy farmer who donated the land on which their school was built. The research project and the book the students produced won a Kodak Cameras in the Curriculum Award. So, the combination of history and poetry on the mural wall appealed to Rafal, too.

In preparation for the mural, the Nelsons primed and painted the entire building, work they had already planned to do this spring. The 2,300-square-foot north wall, facing the marina, was covered with aluminum-sheathed panels, and Rojas began to lay out the design in July. He hopes the first phase will be completed before the snow flies. “If we have another winter like the last one,” he observes with a smile, “I can paint right through it.”

Rojas and Gary Nelson have developed a fine relationship. Nelson asked Rojas if he could do some of the painting. “Of course,” Rojas agreed. “Paint as much as you like…on the other side of the building!”

Phase One will include all the basic structures, a complete wall of history and poetry. Phase Two, to be done as funds become available, will fill in details of plants, flowers, birds and insects associated with The Ridges. Rojas hopes that a printed guide will be available at that point to tell viewers where to find each of these elements. Guided tours might also be provided to explain each part of the completed mural and its historical significance.

Ram Rojas continues filling in the fine details of the mural. Photo by Len Villano.

A unique feature of the mural is that Phase Three, anticipated in about 2017, will replace some of the original elements with other significant images of Baileys Harbor history. Some grants and an interest-free loan from an interested resident are helping to fund the current work. About twenty percent of the projected cost of Phase One has been raised. The Ridges is assisting by seeking grants, while the Baileys Harbor Historical Society is handling tax-free donations to the Baileys Harbor Community Mural Project.

So, is it pure coincidence that a little boy growing up in Venezuela nearly 60 years ago had an opportunity to become a trained artist, was part of a select group that worked around the world, was invited to come to Door County, where one of his paintings led to a commissioned work for a wealthy Texan whose mother, the recipient of the family portrait, later recommended the painter to do a mural in Wittenberg that was viewed by the woman promoting the Baileys Harbor mural project, who had happened to meet the artist some years earlier? A likely story!

For more information about the mural project contact Nancy Rafal at 920.839.2191 or via email at [email protected]. Persons who wish to contribute to the project can do so by making a check payable to Baileys Harbor Historical Society-BHMCP. Send donations to BHHS-BHCMP, c/o Nancy Rafal, PO Box 340, Baileys Harbor, WI 54202.

For updates and current photos of the project, visit

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