The story unfolds as you walk through one of the only tunnels in Beaufort County.
Harriet Tubman wields a shotgun and leads enslaved people to freedom. There’s the bus former Robert Smalls High School principal W. K. Alston drove to pick up students for school, followed by Beaufort hero Robert Smalls and the Confederate ship he stole to escape slavery and become a U.S. congressman.
The completed scene will tell the story of Beaufort’s history, past and present. St. Helena Island artist John Bradley Jr. spent recent weeks sketching the outline of his portion of the mural in black spray paint in the tunnel under Ribaut Road connecting the Technical College of the Lowcountry campus.
“It’s just an outline,” Bradley said of his work. “I can imagine when it’s all colored; it’s going to be amazing.”
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But the project has been dealt a setback after a vandal marred Bradley’s work this week. Blue paint tinges the figures in numerous places, and green and blue paint is spattered on the unpainted opposite side where Bradley plans to finish.
Someone vandalized the empty tunnel in the early hours Wednesday morning, those associated with the project say. The face of the woman believed responsible was clear in security footage, and she was identified quickly after the images were shared on social media by the Beaufort Arts Council, which with the college is supporting the mural.
The woman met with Arts Council representatives Wednesday and a police report was filed. No arrests had been made Thursday morning, and a school official said the college not yet decided whether to pursue charges.
Bradley said he met with the woman, that she apologized and he forgave her. While the community project has been underway for almost two years, Bradley said his portion of the mural had only just begun and shouldn’t have much effect on his work.
Project manager and artist Kim Falls, who is painting another area of the mural, said some of the paint could be removed with sandpaper and that Bradley should be able to paint over blemishes on the work he has already completed.
Falls said she noticed the damage Wednesday morning.
She left her paint supplies inside the west entrance where she is working. That’s where she said someone picked up the paint and began applying it to the walls for several minutes just after 1 a.m. Wednesday.
The woman was quickly identified after Falls went to the school security office and IT department and the images were shared on the Beaufort Arts Council Facebook page. The person seen painting the tunnel and another woman seen with her came forward, apologized and offered to help clean up, said Mary Lee Carns, the school’s vice president for institutional advancement and external relations.
“They never stopped to think what was going on here and what it represents,” Carns said.
The painting began in early 2017 as a community project recognizing in part the history of Mather School, which started in 1868 to teach the daughters of enslaved people. The school served black students for a century before becoming a trade school.
The first phase, which includes the entrance to the west end of the tunnel and the underground painting, is expected to be finished in February.
Local artists and volunteers have contributed to the work. Falls painted a portrait over the east entrance of Rachel Crane Mather, the Boston school teacher who came to Beaufort during the 1860s and founded the school.
A second phase will include painting the east entrance but also landscaping to absorb water from above that currently seeps through the walls and would damage the art. The school and arts organization expect a need of about $20,000 to $30,000 for that segment, Falls said.
Bradley, a graffiti artist whose work includes painting for churches and barber shops, had spent the past few weeks sketching an outline of his work on the corrugated metal walls of the underground tunnel. The St. Helena native was in the process of moving back home from Columbia when he entered work in an Arts Council exhibit and Falls asked for his thoughts on how to paint the tunnel.
“I said look, if you’re going to do this with paintbrush, it definitely wont work,” Bradley said. “There are spray cans for that.”
The effect of the graffiti-like images on the curved metal tunnel is that they become clear as you walk past but obscure from other angles.
In addition to Harriet Tubman and Robert Smalls, the work includes images of Pat Conroy teaching students on Daufuskie Island before he became a best-selling author and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier.
Weightlifting phenom C.J. Cummings and American Idol winner and St. Helena native Candice Glover are among those also expected to appear in the final product, Falls said. Richie Parker, a Beaufort native who went on to become a design engineer for Hendrick Motorsports despite being born with no arms, and NFL safety and St. Helena native Ron Parker could also be included.
The figures will later be painted in with vibrant colors.
“The most vivid, colorful, with the most information,” Falls said of Bradley’s contribution. “It’s going to be kind of the history of Beaufort tying in to the modern-day Beaufort.”