L AFAYETTE — The artwork of Robert Dafford is easy to spot in downtown Baton Rouge and Lafayette — a giant harmonica graces the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino and Lafayette’s festival stages are accented by swamp scenes and Acadian history.
South Louisianans may know the Lafayette muralist for his local creations, but Dafford has been producing public art for decades throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe.
His murals have transformed flood walls along the Ohio River, told historical stories of Native Americans and European settlers and combined the story of Acadian exile with Louisiana and France.
Dafford’s work has been compiled in “The Public Art of Robert Dafford,” a coffee table book published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.
Lafayette author and photographer Philip Gould provides the book’s text and photos.
Gould says the book aims to showcase the variety of Dafford’s work, which includes hundreds of murals among many small towns in America.
There are 64 murals in Portsmouth, Ohio, for instance, including the town’s numerous Major League Baseball players and the Portsmouth Motor Cycle Club dating back to 1893.
“It’s really great for me to show my friends what I’ve been doing for 30 years,” Dafford said.
Towns such as Paducah, Kentucky , or Vicksburg, Mississippi , contact Dafford about creating public art, then he meets with the towns’ economic development representatives, historians, tourism officials and others to create 50 to 100 subjects important to the towns’ histories.
Once the subjects are finalized, Dafford utilizes photos and historical detail to create the murals, in which he incorporates craftsmen, musicians and folk artists.
Most of the river towns have large flood walls along the water’s edge, concrete monoliths that protect the towns from flooding but hide what once was a scenic river view.
Dafford uses these walls as canvases.
“They all have these ugly flood walls, and we turn them into mini-galleries,” he said. “And then all these people feel they have a personal investment in the painting and it becomes their paintings.”
Dafford studied art at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now UL-Lafayette, before joining the Navy. His travels offered him the opportunity to view European art, “the real thing,” he said, although he also developed a deeper appreciation for south Louisiana culture.
“Each time I would come home, I would realize that the Cajun people were a whole lot more like the people in the Mediterranean than the people of Virginia Beach,” where he sometimes lived stateside, he said.
His first commissioned mural in 1977 for Acadian Village in Lafayette depicts the Acadians’ deportation from their homeland.
Since then, Dafford has created 400 works of public art, mostly for small towns such as Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and Maysville, Kentucky, although Louisiana residents may know him from his frog murals in Rayne and his murals of Cajun and zydeco musicians in downtown Lafayette.
Larger cities have included Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Nantes, France. One of his most famous murals is the giant clarinet reaching skyward on the side of the Holiday Inn by the Superdome.
To document the scope of Dafford’s work, Gould traveled to America’s heartland, interviewing those who have worked with the artist.
“This is the part very few people know, and I wanted to see it firsthand,” Gould said. “People’s impression of Robert in Lafayette is different. He’s a bit of a folk hero up there (in Ohio and Kentucky).”
Dafford’s goals in creating historical murals for small towns are many. He hopes they will bring in visitors, showcase what downtowns can be again and expose people to art who may not have the opportunity otherwise.
He says hopes the murals also will instill a sense of community pride.
Gould and Dafford will discuss the book as part of the Bayou State Book Talks at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11, at South Regional Library in Lafayette.
They will be signing copies of “The Public Art of Robert Dafford” on Saturday, Dec. 13, at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Acadiana Center for the Arts as part of Lafayette’s Second Saturday ArtWalk.