Artist's life-size mural of Okoboji takes museum visitors back in time

The largest mural by Rees, a sunset scene overlooking Smith's Bay in West Okoboji Lake, takes up the entire east wall of the car museum. Rees uses only brushwork and estimates that the mural will take 400 gallons of paint by the time he's finished.

“It's hard to describe, isn't it?” said Toby Shine, 70, as he took an actual stroll down his own memory lane.

“It,” in this case, is a giant structure near the southern shore of Iowa's West Okoboji Lake, where thousands of tourists and part-time residents will converge this Labor Day weekend for one last blast of summer.

On the outside, it looks like a plain industrial warehouse with a small store front.

Inside, it looks like nostalgia reincarnate — like the memory of a very specific time, and a very specific place, in the process of being painstakingly recreated by men who lived the memory half a century ago.

Specifically, it looks like Okoboji circa 1960.

It is called the Okoboji Classic Cars Museum, but that only describes part of what's happening here. True, there's at least a couple million dollars in classic cars on display. Some of them come straight from an on-site restoration shop, where a staff of nine mechanics and technicians work on custom projects with five-and-six-digit budgets.

But two-thirds of this structure — some 48,000 square feet, about the size of a football field without end zones — is devoted to a life-size diorama.

When Shine enters the museum, he likes to tell visitors he's going to take them back in time, and as soon as he pushes open the door, old-time rock 'n' roll plays overhead.

The hall is divided into two huge rooms. One side has been built to mimic the main drag of nearby Spencer, Iowa, Shine's hometown, in the late 1950s. Storefronts jut out from the walls, like a small-town movie set on a Hollywood back lot.

The other side evokes the scene surrounding Arnolds Park, with its iconic amusement park and view overlooking West Okoboji Lake.

Mint condition classic cars line the concrete floor of both rooms, the presumable “draw” to the museum. But another star feature at the Okoboji Classic Cars Museum is the all-encompassing mural being painted across every single wall by a retired construction man named Jack Rees.

Rees started painting the mural last fall, not long after the building went up. So far he's completed 7,500 square feet, or about one-fourth of the overall project. He shows up weekday mornings between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and often paints into the late afternoon. He uses only brushwork and estimates the mural will take 400 gallons of paint by the time he's done.

He expects the project will take another year and a half, at which point he believes the mural will set a new Guinness World Record for the largest by a single artist.

According to Guinness, the current record-holder is Ernesto Espiridion Rios Rocha of Mexico, whose mural on the wall of a convention center “depicts the historical and economical development of Mazatlan, and the Mexican state of Sinaloa as well as the rich marine fauna of the Sea of Cortez.” It measures more than 18,000 square feet.

By comparison, the “Fertile Ground” mural in north downtown Omaha, created by Philadelphia-based muralist Meg Saligman with help from assistants, towers at 22,000 square feet.

Rees' mural will measure about 30,000 square feet, and while he's using historical photographs for reference, he says he's painting mostly from memory and imagination.

“I know this from heart,” he said. “I grew up here. I spent the '60s here. I can almost paint the bay by memory.”

Rees, 69, grew up in Spirit Lake, Iowa. He attended college until he could no longer afford it and then became an electrician and later a project manager. Throughout his career, Rees and his wife moved across the country for work. In the course of it all, he started painting. Realizing he was pretty good at it, he launched a side business selling his work.

Upon retirement, Rees and his wife settled back in Iowa, where they first met. He might have spent his golden years painting as he had for decades. But last year, Shine, a longtime friend, made a proposal Rees couldn't refuse.

Today, his studio resides in a brightly lit office space next to Shine's. He works on contract, paid by the square foot, and spends the majority of his days making incremental progress on a project that seems to grow as much as it shrinks.

“I don't think I'll ever be done,” he said in jest, “because Toby keeps changing things and adding things.”

If a mural without end can have a beginning, it is in the 200-foot long wall covered floor to ceiling with a painting of a sunset overlooking Smith's Bay in West Okoboji Lake. When Rees looks at it, he points out the landmarks: Pick's Resort, Pillsbury Point, Fort Ridge Point.

“This is the pier,” he said. “Everyone knows where the pier is.”

Because of the faux architecture lining the museum, it appears at first that Rees' mural isn't entirely continuous, but this is one of the painting's several illusions. In fact, where wall intersects with structure, exterior scene turns into interior scene, and then becomes exterior again on the other side.

A building-sized painting that curves around walls requires a geometric perspective and attention to detail most people don't possess, and it can disorient some visitors. On a recent group tour, a woman peered across the museum and couldn't tell if a car in the distance was real or painted onto a wall (it was real).

Rees sees this all the time. He likes to arrive at the museum early, in part because it allows him to start painting before visitors arrive. A couple hundred of them show up each day. At first, tour guides would introduce Rees when they happened upon him painting, but now they know not to. People would applaud him. The attention got embarrassing.

“It's not that I don't want anything to do with the public,” he said. “But it starts to become too much.

Some of Rees' biggest challenges lay ahead. An entire section of the museum will become a drive-in movie theater with display cars parked as though taking in a show. The wall through which visitors enter the museum will become an extension of Spencer's Grand Avenue, so that a viewer standing on the opposite end of the room will be looking down the “street” and into the horizon.

The mural's overall cost is a figure Shine and Rees keep to themselves, but Shine calls his ongoing investment “the best buy in artwork in the country.”

“It's a good deal for both of us,” Rees said. “No artist gets this opportunity.”

He means it, too. He was commissioned to paint a masterwork of the most memorable time in his life, the magical moment between youth and adulthood, when his nights were spent cruising the town, seeing bands and meeting the girl who would become his wife.

“It's almost like fate coming together,” Rees said. “It's the perfect match. That's the only way I can put it.”

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