The Native American Artist Behind a Titanic Mural Gets His Due
In Delaware, a recent discovery of two signatures at the bottom of a mural painted to commemorate the Titanic has altered a bit of local history. Though members of the community have long believed Gilbert W. (Gibby) Perry, Jr. to be the sole painter of the mural, uncovered facts have revealed Perry as the designer, while the actual painter was discovered to be Prairie Band Potawatomi member and artist James Wahwassuck.
In 1987, when Rollins Outdoor Advertising was commissioned to create a mural for the Titanic Historical Society’s 75th Anniversary, the company assigned Local 1159 Union Painter Wahwassuck with the task to paint a 10x16 mural of the Titanic’s Grand Staircase. It took Wahwassuck 55 hours to complete the mural, which was painted on canvas and based on Perry’s sketches.
Concerned the creators of the mural might be forgotten, Wahwassuck urged Perry to sign the mural before it left the shop. After coaxing from Wahwassuck, Perry signed both their names.
Twenty-six years later, during a fundraising celebration to benefit the Everett Theater in Middletown, Delaware, and a nearby art center that bears Perry’s name, event coordinator Rick Pulling unrolled the 10 x 16 foot mural he had been loaned by the Titanic Historical Society.
Pulling noticed there were two signatures.
“When it was unrolled that is the first thing I noticed,” says Pulling.
“We sent the Titanic Historical Society a letter asking for permission if we could use this mural, and we used this as the backdrop of our entire gala. We knew the mural was signed, and there was talk of a second person but no one knew who it was.”
Wanting to get to the bottom of the matter, Pulling decided to do some research to learn more about the second signature.
"I spent 34 years in law enforcement, and I can find people if I need to find them," said Pulling. "It is a whole lot easier today that was 30 some odd years ago. I am retired now but it didn't take me five minutes to get something on James' Facebook page and another five minutes to get a phone number."
Wahwassuck, meanwhile, had caught wind of the omission from an inaccurate April 16 story at DelawareOnline.com: "Titanic tribute honors special connection with First State."
Pulling reached Wahwassuck at his home on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation in northeastern Kansas at 3:30 PM, and their conversation quickly established that Wahwassuck was indeed the artist. An hour and a half later, Pulling was telling gala attendees the story about Perry and Wahwassuck.
Wahwassuck told ICTMN that he is glad to see that things were cleared up, and that he still remembered the entire color palette of the piece like it was yesterday. “I still have some of the old paint and some of the primer,” he said.
He explained his side of the tale. “Management came to the shop and told me they had accepted a commission and that I would be doing this," he said. "It was just another work assignment for me. They didn't say anything about the background or the celebration. It's like people say -- 'I don't know a damn thing, I just work here.'”
Wahwassuck admitted that for the most part union artists did not sign their work, but in this instance he thought they should sign the work in case questions came up in the future. “At the end, when I completed my work. I said, 'Gibby, go get a brush, here is some paint and put your name and mine on the bottom where it won't be seen. This is how we're going to be remembered. If there are any questions in the future, this will be there.'"
"He said he didn't want to do it," Wahwassuck continued. "But I told him, 'Goddammit, put the damn signatures on there.' I can get forceful and emphatic; he decided he would go ahead with it. That's how our names got in there. I was correct on that. He became part of it because I insisted he put his signature there."
After Perry signed the mural, Wahwassuck admits he did not know what happened to the mural until it surfaced earlier this month at the Everett Theater fundraiser.
"The only ones that ever saw the mural were the ones that were Intimately Involved with the Titanic Historical Society back in 1987," Pulling explained. "It was never displayed. The historical society bought it from the Rollins Company for 800 bucks.”
After the Everett Theater fundraiser, Pulling brought the mural back to the Titanic Historical Society. When questioned, representatives at the Titanic Historical Society admitted they were unaware of the true history regarding the mural, but stated they would be interested in revealing the true story. DelawareOnline.com has published a follow-up story that sets the record straight: "Titanic mural has epic story of its own."