By Adrian Shelley
Marcus Blackwell first visited our Austin, Texas office in the summer of 2017. He was a neighbor of ours, a resident of the nonprofit housing complex with which we share a building. He told us that he had learned about our work in Texas, admired what we did and would like to paint a mural for us on our office wall.
“Painting keeps me sane,” he told us. Marcus, who died unexpectedly in May, was a Vietnam War veteran and an artist, and he had done paintings and murals across Texas. He showed us his sketches and photos of murals he had painted over the years. He didn’t want any money; he just asked us to pay for his paint.
We settled on an outdoor scene that would show the beauty of Texas and the potential of clean energy. We gave Marcus our ideas (wind turbines, longhorns, a city skyline), and he began sketching directly onto our office wall. If you’ve seen the Facebook or Twitter pages for our Texas office, then you’ve seen the final product.
Marcus moved at his own pace. Sometimes he worked on the mural for hours at a stretch. Other times we didn’t see him for days. But over the course of two months, our mural took shape and we got to know Marcus better. He was a nomad who always seemed just on the cusp of leaving town. Sometimes he did leave, traveling for days or weeks at a time around Texas and especially the Rio Grande Valley.
Vietnam changed Marcus. Before the war, G. Marcus Blackwell was known as “Gary.” When he came home he became “Marcus.” He told me once that, “Gary had died over there.” He didn’t talk much about his youth, but he carried pain that was obvious behind his eyes and in his restless nature.
Our mural was eventually finished, but not our relationship with Marcus. He liked painting for a cause, and he continued to make banners, posters and cartoons for us. Marcus never asked for compensation, although we did pay him for our mural and continued to buy paint for his work. He wasn’t shy about dropping into the office in the morning to make himself a cup of coffee. He loved seeing his work used in protests and rallies, and he shared our spirit of activism and fighting the powers that be.
We counted Marcus as a friend, and we were privileged to enjoy the products of his wild, artistic energy. A few days after his death, his two daughters visited our office for the first time. They told us that while Marcus had painted a lot in his days, the mural he painted for us had been especially important to him. They had come to see it for themselves.
When I look at our mural, I see the promise of a clean, prosperous future for Texas. I hope that Marcus’ daughters saw what they were looking for.