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If your average picture is worth a thousand words, a full-color painting that covers the entire side of a building and can be seen from a block away deserves a paragraph in the history books. At least that’s how Perry Frank looks at it. Her company, American Dreams & Associates Inc., has joined up with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., to document the city’s outdoor murals. “When I say ‘document,’” Frank explains, “that means to verify what they are, where they are, who did them, and what the story is surrounding their creation and their purpose.”

Frank estimates that artists have produced more than 100 open murals in the District within the last 25 years; her photographer, Bruce Preston, has shot nearly 80 of them. Rather than simply identifying and cataloguing the works, Frank also locates the original painters and tries to glean the story behind the creation of each piece. Most of the artists were sponsored by various nonprofit arts and community organizations and assisted by teams of children enrolled in summer youth programs.

Most murals take inspiration from the surrounding community, like Cheryl Foster’s River Terrace, on the back of the Liberty Cab Co. warehouse at Kenilworth Avenue and Benning Road NE. The bright yellow painting, completed in 1992, depicts several upstanding kids from the small River Terrace community mowing the lawn, dancing, and playing the flute. Come 2002, Foster hopes to hold a reunion and find out what will have become of the pictured children.

Frank is a self-professed “public historian” with a doctorate in American studies from George Washington University. She opted against a teaching career and started her own company to begin the Mural Documentation Project in 1997, starting by exploring public art in Northwest D.C. Her mission, funded by the D.C. Humanities Council, seems to have grown out of her desire to experience and understand the city more fully.

“What is amazing to me,” Frank says, “is that the people in one part of the city don’t even know about the murals in the other parts of the city,” much less the people, she adds. She admits to having been one of those people—until recently.

Were it not for the latest installment of Frank’s project, called “East of the River,” it’s safe to presume many people on the city’s west side would never see the murals of Wards 7 and 8—among them Rik Freeman’s One Hundred Years of African-American History, at Minnesota and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenues NE. Although the average mural’s life lasts only 10 years, the works of Freeman and several other muralists have been photographed and documented, and will be preserved by the historical society as part of Frank’s project. But Freeman admits that nothing beats the initial recognition of folks passing under the muralist’s ladder. “You can put your work up in a gallery,” he says, “but you’re not going to get the same feedback as when people come by and see you painting.”—Neil Drumming