Conversations with residents of Ely turn often to the topic of jobs. They think about jobs a lot, and for good reason. With an economy largely dependent on two industries, mining and the Ely state prison, the town of 4,500 can feel like it’s on fragile footing. It’s evident when you walk down Aultman Street, Ely’s main drag, and see empty storefronts with dusty windows and faded signs. Many businesses rise and fall with the fortunes of the mining companies and the nearby prison.
But the main street has something more than dead shops: murals. Some depict the town’s embrace of diversity, an oft-forgotten American value. Others evoke the town’s small but significant role in the history of telecommunication (Ely’s White Pine County hosted an important segment of the Pony Express). Other murals honor the area’s ranching heritage. They’re all striking and, in some cases, beautiful. What’s equally striking – at least to the jaded eyes of an urbanite – is how clean they are, how remarkably unmarred they are by graffiti.
We talked to Don Allison, an Ely resident out for his daily three-mile walk, about the murals. “The murals are about civic pride, so there’s not a big issue with graffiti,” says Allison, a counselor at the state prison. According to him and many other locals, the murals were part of a beautification effort that started about 10 years ago, a program that also included public benches, planters and even a sculpture park.
Some of the best among them aren’t just visually compelling, but they make a commentary, too. One mural of a group of children — white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American – is done in a realistic mode, but the American flag behind it, with its avid, off-kilter stars and stripes, looks as though the kids themselves painted it. Another mural is an almost stylized portrait of a shepherd who seems to have posed for the painting, gazing pointedly at the portraitist. He holds a sheep, and his trusty dog looks at up eagerly, awaiting orders. Another mural on the side of the AT&T building is a panoramic collage about the history of the telephone. As you walk around town, the murals do what the best public art does: They don’t just bring some beauty into the urban environment. They also invite the people who live in that environment to feel connected to it, because it expresses their shared past, and the shared ideals that determine their future.