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Liberty Lake historian Ross Schneidmiller, left, and local artist Joel Rabe stand in front of the historical mural Rabe completed recently at Barlows at Liberty Lake restaurant.

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Barlows mural traces LL history
8/28/2014

By Valerie Putnam
Splash Contributor

When the new Barlows at Liberty Lake restaurant commissioned artist Joel Rabe to paint a 24-foot mural on the wall last year, he didn't know what to expect.

"The biggest challenge was coming up with the idea," Rabe said. "At first, they wanted more of an abstract."

Rabe evolved the idea into a personal look at Liberty Lake's history. Beginning at the inception of the small lake community, his concept traces the history to modern day, depicting images of actual people along the way who were involved in the lake's history. 

"It was important everything was authentic," Rabe said. "I wanted to make sure the photos I used were from Liberty Lake."

Enter Ross Schneidmiller, who Rabe consulted on the project and who provided many of the photographs. Schneidmiller is longtime Liberty Lake historian and president of the Liberty Lake Historical Society. 

"My first impression of Joel was this guy totally wants to absorb himself into the community history before he goes forward with what this should be," Schneidmiller said. 

Rabe's idea was to transition each historical period using different tones of color, similar to photographs. He painted Liberty Lake's beginning history using sepia tones, which fade into a little bit of color depicting the 1950s.  Rabe transitioned into a more "Technicolor" look for the 1970s, and modern day is composed of brighter tones.

Using acrylic paint as his medium, Rabe selected a wide range of images, such as the old dance pavilion, Holiday Hills ski resort, hydroplane races, fireworks and soapbox derby races.

"That was a new addition while working on it," Rabe said of the special needs soapbox derby picture. "I was looking for another picture and found that one online.  What a great picture."

Prior to this commission, Rabe had never taken on a project of this magnitude.

"It is a different style of painting," Rabe said of painting the images onto the wall. "The strokes are different, and you use a larger brush. You don't have to include so much detail because people look at it from the distance." 

The work slowly progressed over the course of five months. Rabe would periodically have to stop to work on other projects.

"Customers would come in and see what's next," Rabe said. "The owner liked that it was progressing slowly."

When working on the mural, he would work into the wee hours of the morning, meticulously painting the different scenes.

"I had to work with their schedule," Rabe said of the restaurant staff. "I would come in at midnight, throw my cloth down and paint until 5:30 a.m."

As part of his vision for the mural, Rabe included people in the mural who were important in the community's history, such as Steve Liberty, Jimmy McGoldrick and George Libby.

"What really made this are the unique individuals that were part of the Liberty Lake community," Schneidmiller said. "When I fully understood what he was looking for and how he goes through his process, it was just neat to be able to see people who have been a big part of our lake's history come alive on the wall."

Libby was a personal addition for Rabe, as the man also played a role in his own family history. Libby dedicated his life to teaching youth skills at his boy camps.

"He was an awesome guy," Rabe said of Libby. "He was a huge person in my father-in-law's life."

The people depicted on the mural are done with such realism; some patrons have either recognized themselves or others they know in some of the images.

Jim Custer's daughter recognized him on the mural while having dinner at Barlows a couple months ago and notified him right away. Custer came in the restaurant afterwards.

"It's amazing the reality he did; I was truly impressed with it," said Custer, who is part of the Liberty Lake Water Ski Club photo. "That was a memorable time of my life, and it's fun to relive it."

According to Schneidmiller, each of the photos Rabe selected has a story to coincide with the image.

"Every one of these individuals had a passion for Liberty Lake and a passion for something else," Schneidmiller said. "They all have a wonderful story."

Rabe's signature rests below his favorite picture in the mural.

"My favorite picture is the railroad one," Rabe said. "Because it shows how 20-year-old boys all have an attitude. They all have the same serious look."

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