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Posted on Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 8 a.m.

Original painter restores Ann Arbor's famous mural featuring Woody Allen

By James Dickson

Wolk Mural.jpg

Melanie Maxwell |

Richard Wolk took a sip of his Starbucks latte, looked out the window, and knew something was not right. Not with the latte, but with the mural he had painted 26 years ago of five famous writers, near the corner of East Liberty and South State streets.

"I don't know how often they'd had it touched up, but there were a lot of serious cracks forming in the paint," Wolk recalled. Paint was chipping in important sections, like the eyes and mouths of the writers. "I felt that if I didn't fix it soon, it was probably going to have to be replaced," he explained, and he didn't want some amateur trying it. "This isn't a simple re-touch; you need someone who knows that they're doing out there, or you could ruin the whole thing."

Not that Wolk is particularly fond of the piece. The painter of Ann Arbor's best-known mural now lives in West Bloomfield and works as a process server. While he's appreciative of the public response the mural has received, including a prominent placement in advertisements for the locally produced film "Answer This," it's not exactly what he would call "creative," Wolk said, and besides, he's not really much into art anyway. When he's not serving court papers Wolk spends his time learning guitar, which he considers a higher art form.

Wolk, a University of Michigan graduate, approached the management at David's Books in early 1984 about replacing the bookstore-related mural with something a bit more fun: actual authors. He started work that March.

Left to right, the authors featured in the mural are Woody Allen, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka and Anais Nin.

Allen is the only filmmaker of the five; Wolk chose him because of the mural's proximity to both the State and Michigan theaters. "Woody also wrote a book, 'Without Feathers,'" Wolk insisted, "so he definitely counts."

Wolk chose Nin because his girlfriend at the time liked her writing, and he wanted to have at least one woman. Hesse was the only writer who influenced Wolk at the time, though he was familiar with Poe and has gone on to appreciate Kafka.

As Wolk retouched the mural in late September he was approached by a number of passersby, offering their praises and their hands for shaking.

One man was upset as he repeated a rumor he’d heard, that the mural would be whitewashed and replaced. But the decision to retouch the mural means that weather is its only threat at this point, according to Oxford Property Management, which manages the building. Wolk expects the mural, which was never been named (more on that below), to last another 10 years before needing more work, and said he'd be glad to touch it up again. But if Oxford wants a different mural for the wall, Wolk said he'd pass that opportunity on to a younger artist.

Jeff Hauptman, CEO of Oxford Property Management, told that he consulted with a number of local historians about what to do with the mural. Some said to keep it, another said that the old bookstore mural under the writers should be restored, that Wolk's work had only been up a quarter of a century. But there was no consensus.

Hauptman got his answer when Wolk approached Oxford about doing the retouching. He knew he'd made the right choice when he saw the mural featured on the front cover of September's Ann Arbor Observer.

"All this back-and-forth, all this discussion, then the artist chooses to approach us, and the mural makes the front page of the Observer. Taken together, we felt that the community had spoken."

And now Oxford Property Management wants the community to speak again. The mural has no name and the company is considering whether and what to name it. Offer your suggestions. Take our poll.



Mon, Oct 18, 2010 : 2:08 p.m.

I don't care if it ever gets a name, but I do like "The Writer's Block" @ian What's with the right-wing intrusion into a conversation about art. I suppose if it's not a Norman Rockwell, it's not art.


Mon, Oct 18, 2010 : 10:52 a.m.

The eyesore!

Andrew Selinger

Mon, Oct 18, 2010 : 9:56 a.m.

@Tex Treeder Oxford Company didn't "feel the need to name" the mural, we simply wondered whether the mural should be named. After some internet research, I found it referred to as: -The Poet Mural -Liberty Street Mural -The Bookstore Mural -East Liberty Street Wall Mural -Several publications, including and The Michigan Daily don't refer to it by any name. We thought it was interesting that Ann Arbor has had this icon for almost 30 years, yet nobody knows what to officially call it or even how to casually reference it, which can be confusing at times. We wanted to initiate some discussion on the topic and perhaps learn if the public had some colloquial name for it.

rusty shackelford

Mon, Oct 18, 2010 : 8:10 a.m.

Too bad there's no Bulwer Lytton contest for journalism.


Mon, Oct 18, 2010 : 7:14 a.m.

It's already been said once, but it can't be said enough....Woody Allen married his stepdaughter. Disgusting.

Tex Treeder

Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 8:12 p.m.

It may or may not be a great work of art, but its status as an icon is undisputed. I'm happy to see it restored. I'm curious why some property management company feels the need to name this. The artist didn't. And finally, I live and work downtown and I pass this mural frequently. I'd like to recommend that any little thugs that are caught tagging this (or anywhere else) with mindless graffiti should be stripped naked, spray painted blue and told they can wash off the paint after they've cleaned off the graffiti at their own expense. Let the punishment fit the crime.


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 6:26 p.m.

The biggest crime in A2 art history was the greywashing of the Michigan Theater tunnel (where the MJ dude dances...) a few years back. I'd like to see that restored.


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 5:30 p.m.

@Lola Who named the Mona Lisa? What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; -William Shakespeare it's not exactly what he would call "creative," Wolk said How sweet it is!


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 4:31 p.m.

*If* it's going to be named isn't it customary for the artist to name his/her own work? If Mr. Wolk wants to name it then let him decide what to call it. If he doesn't then it should be left unnamed.


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 2:14 p.m.

I always admired the artistry of an employee at Ann Arbor Carpet and Paint on Stadium Blvd replicating Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night. Her creation was painted over which is shameful. As an Ann Arbor native, I will always refer to Mr. Wolk's work as THE WRITERS' BLOCK.


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 1:41 p.m.

please, keep woody allen immortalized, he only was involved with his step (adopted) daughter and only married her once she got pregnant. classy great man there. not.


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 12:20 p.m.

@speechless, "There once was an epoch in American history, lasting mainly from the end of the 1960s until the late 1970s (and which lingered in reduced form through the '80s), when Woody Allen was widely revered as hip & edgy by many discerning fans of popular cinema and satire." Now Woody Allen is calling for giving Obama dictatorial powers over this country and its people. Unfortunately, our country is headed in that direction with all the draconian laws passed by Bush and Obama. Not to mention all the illegal wiretapping and surveillance by the federal government on its citizens. Google, "Woody Allen + dictatorship."


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 10:58 a.m.

A note to younger readers of this page: There once was an epoch in American history, lasting mainly from the end of the 1960s until the late 1970s (and which lingered in reduced form through the '80s), when Woody Allen was widely revered as hip & edgy by many discerning fans of popular cinema and satire. This sometimes comes as a bit of an eye-opening surprise for those who came of age in the last 20 years. Nonetheless, It's quite pleasing to see that the original artist has volunteered a quarter-century later to restore a longtime mural honoring offbeat intellect. I've long liked it being there to add color and flavor to that general area, along with the former mural at the old Tios location and the long alleyway next to the Michigan Theater.


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 10:29 a.m.

"Does This Outfit Make Me Look Fat?"


Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 8:56 a.m.

The Liberty Street Literary Society

European Flavour

Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 8:19 a.m.

I vote to give the mural a name, but didn't really care for any of the choices. I would like to suggest "Authors in Bloom" as a starting point.