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Overpass Easels

Michael Ford’s larger-than-life art merges traffic and culture along Texas highways

Munday Mayor Robert Bowen still remembers when he showed up at City Hall nearly two decades ago to have his picture taken. More than 350 other residents of the small Knox County town between Abilene and Wichita Falls were also there. Everyone had agreed to pose to help with the creation of a bridge mural—part of a highway project to widen and reroute U.S. 277, which now runs through the east part of town.

Carvings of the residents’ silhouettes now form the textured red stripes of a huge depiction of an American flag that unfurls across an overpass retaining wall where U.S. 277 crosses Texas 222. There’s a boy bouncing a basketball, a wife kissing her firefighter husband, two girls holding watermelon slices, a cowboy toting his saddle. Bowen—who’s still mayor—stands with two neighbors.

“Like any small town, we were worried when the highway went around us,” he recalls. “But we’ve done OK, and we’ve enjoyed our mural. It’s unique.”

Munday’s road art is among more than 50 pieces across Texas that Michael Ford designed over the course of about 14 years of working for the Texas Department of Transportation. “I’ve been retired 10 years, and I still get to talk about my public art,” quips Ford, who lives near Wimberley and is a Pedernales Electric Cooperative member. “I like to say my hobby became my job.”

Michael Ford with his sculpted panel that celebrates Wichita Falls’ Hotter’N Hell Hundred cycling event.

Courtesy Michael Ford

Ford sculpts Windy Man in extruded foam.

Courtesy Michael Ford

Artistic since childhood, he served as a medical illustrator while in the Army and later worked 10 years for a civil engineering firm. In 1994, TxDOT’s bridge division in Austin hired Ford as a draftsman. Soon he was helping engineers create graphics for their presentations. In the meantime, his wife, Betsy, signed him up for a stonecarving class.

“During lunch at work, I’d pull out my limestone block and chisel on it,” Ford recalls. “When my boss saw my gargoyle sculpture, he said, ‘Somehow, someday, we’re going to put one on a bridge.’ ”

A few months later, Ford had his chance. When TxDOT’s Lubbock division wanted a whimsical logo to dress up a new east-west freeway, he offered to do the work himself. The project became his. He also acquired a new job title—graphics artist. That was in 1998.

Using his own furrowed brow as a model, Ford sculpted Windy Man as a symbol of Lubbock’s infamous gusts and dust. With flowing hair and puffy cheeks, the 3D concrete face blows a dust cloud through pursed lips. However, after the first of a planned 20 went up in 2004—after years of highway design and construction—opponents demanded that the “pagan” Windy Man be removed.

Eventually, TxDOT tried again and installed one Windy Man at the intersection of the Marsha Sharp Freeway and Avenue L in 2011. He blows dust high above an arts district bridge mural, also designed by Ford. Lubbock overpasses also display red yuccas and a Buddy Holly tribute, courtesy of Ford.

“They all have stories,” Ford says. “Their main purpose has always been to give residents something that’s unique to their community.”

Town by town, Ford worked with mayors and residents to design what they desired. About five years before Windy Man, Childress debuted Ford’s talents. Just west of the town, on the edge of the Panhandle near the Oklahoma border, a gigantic stagecoach, windmill and wheat heads—set into overpass retaining walls on U.S. 287 at County Road 9—symbolize the town’s strong ties to agriculture.

Similarly, Goree in Knox County and Robstown in Nueces County chose cotton bolls to grace their highway walls. And, like Munday, Goree showcases an American flag and Texas flag in addition to cotton. Sinton, just north of Corpus Christi, features a cattle drive on all four overpass ramps as U.S. 181 comes into town from the east.

Pelicans in Corpus Christi.

Courtesy Michael Ford

Cotton bolls in Lubbock.

Courtesy Michael Ford

In Wichita Falls, concrete bicyclists in helmets race across retaining walls in celebration of the city’s annual Hotter’N Hell Hundred cycling event. Comanche residents chose rolling hills, live oaks and Native Americans on horseback to honor their natural heritage.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles adorn concrete pillars of an overhead sign on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Causeway in Corpus Christi. White-tailed bucks and does pose among prickly pear cactuses in Laredo.

During an Interstate 35 expansion project, TxDOT offered cities the chance to have their own bridge art along frontage roads. Jump off the freeway at Salado to see a stagecoach driven by three cowboys and six horses. At Troy, a bird flits from fence post to post in a series of four windmill murals.

Farther north in West, three murals depict twirling Czech dancers and a polka band, reflecting the city’s cultural roots. In Abbott, silhouettes of a farmer on a tractor and a windmill behind a derelict barn stretch across retaining walls.

“I always designed on a dime,” says Ford, who used pencil sketches and computer software to construct his images that, when enlarged, measure up to 100 feet wide and 50 feet high. Instead of expensive rubber, he carved sheets of extruded foam to form molds that precast concrete companies used to make 5-by-10-foot concrete panels. At work sites, construction crews pieced the panels into place like a puzzle.

Michael Ford, in front of a cactus wall in San Antonio, with his signature gecko just to his right.

Courtesy Michael Ford

A stagecoach seems to be charging through Salado.

Courtesy Michael Ford

And like any good puzzle, some of Ford’s artworks contain a secret.

“If the design allowed, I’d hide a tiny gecko, like in the oak leaves of a state seal and Windy Man’s hair,” he says. “That became my maker’s mark and the brand name that I continue to use as an artist—Art Gecko.”

Nowadays Ford pours his creativity into crafting sculptures from gourds. Since his retirement from TxDOT, he’s transformed the hard-shelled fruits—kin to pumpkins and melons—into award-winning pieces, such as fairy houses, abstract sculptures, a fanged monster mask and a retro spaceship on the moon.

As Ford and his wife make their way to gourd festivals, they sometimes pass his bridge art. His reaction is what he hopes other travelers have.

“They always bring a smile,” he says. “And I love it when I get messages and photos from people who have spotted one of my walls. Life doesn’t get much better than that.”

Ford with bas-relief troops just east of Copperas Cove on Fort Cavazos.

Courtesy Michael Ford

Czech dancers in West.

Courtesy Michael Ford