Contact: Jodi Wheatley   Phone: (254) 867-2836

The Czech Murals of West: Rich in Heritage, Symbols of Overcoming Adversity

I-35 motorists who take Exit #353 at West are now greeted with two of three completed murals depicting the area's Czech heritage. The images of dancers and polka-band musicians adorning the retaining walls of the highway overpass at FM 2114 are eye-catching and memorable, but for the residents of West—who endured a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 that rocked their small community—the murals symbolize deeply personal and heartwarming stories of dedication, heartache, and perseverance.

"The city has been through a lot in the last few years," says West Mayor Tommy Muska, who was part of a ribbon-cutting ceremony last month celebrating the opening of the I-35 mainlanes at the intersection.

The completed murals on the westside retaining wall acted as a backdrop for the event. The other mural on the east side will be completed soon. "This location is West's front door. It's a vast improvement to what was here before the completion of this intersection. And with the murals, it's a proud representation of our heritage," Muska says.

  One of the murals depicting polka-band musicians in West. Music and dancing are strong forms of artistic expression in the local culture.  

Plans to incorporate murals on the new overpass began years ago before the I-35 expansion project began. It was TxDOT's vison to have artwork represent the unique aspects of the numerous communities along the corridor in the Waco District. For the West project, artist Mike Ford held numerous meetings with city residents, and together, they decided upon a theme representing the area's Czech influence.

At the ribbon cutting, Ford described the lengthy process of meeting with city leaders, photographing musicians and citizens dressed in traditional Czech costumes. Their participation, he says, helped design the finished product.

"I see the murals in West as a rallying point. It's a visual representation of their community and their heritage," Ford explains. "The murals will certainly bring a smile, but they are also a symbol of how much they lost, and in the end, how strong they are."

  Local dancers keep their cultural heritage alive in celebration of the murals, which capture that heritage for all time for local residents and travelers just passing through to see.  

During the planning stage, Ford had numerous conversations with West City Secretary Joey Pustejovsky, who played a vital role in coordinating the project. Tragically, at 29 years of age Pustejovsky, also a volunteer firefighter, was among the 15 people killed in the plant explosion.

"Joey did a lot for this community, so it's heartwarming to pass by the murals every day and know my son played a role in that," says Joe Pustejovsky, Joey's father. Joe's Czech grandparents settled near West in the early 1900s. "I grew up going to the dances and listening to the music, so the murals mean a lot to me for those reasons, too."

In addition to losing his son, Pustejovsky's house was among 300 West homes damaged or destroyed in the explosion and had to be rebuilt.

Among the local band members who were photographed for the murals was accordion player and beloved West resident, Charlie Ferguson. On the morning of the photo shoot, he had been diagnosed with cancer. But he wanted to contribute to the mural project. He died three months before the ceremony, but friends say he lived long enough to see the mural.

"Charlie made it through the explosion and his house was damaged, but he wasn't able to beat his illness," says good friend Phyllis Chupik. "We drove by the mural the other day, and there's Charlie. We miss him. Everyone misses him. But we are glad he's not suffering."

In all, some 30 West residents participated in the designing of the murals. Ford says the completed murals on the west side have already become a favorite location for photographs. "Because of what's called forced perspective, you can stand across the access road, and it will appear that you are part of the scene."

Ford plans to go back when the eastside mural is finished to determine the best location for forced perspective photos there.

"People of West have been extremely patient. Now, things are coming together," Mayor Muska says. "A lot of progress has been made in repairing and rebuilding the city. This is an appropriate time for the mural project to be completed."

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