‘This is us’


Dr. John Lorentz with his family at the premier of his second film, Beyond These Walls.

SSU Professor and film maker Dr. John Lorentz at the VRCFA showing of his second film.

Human beings are members of one another in that, in their origins they derive from the same essence. —Sa’adi

Shawnee State University Professor Emeritus Dr. John Lorentz grew up in Portsmouth. His father ran the Dreamland Pool. He has had the perspective of being able to see the area go into a state of decline and also has seen what he says is a recent recovery. However, it was not until he embarked upon a 13-year adventure of film making that he was able to see how that recovery was possible and the role the famed Floodwall Murals played in the process. Lorentz says that the river was once a part of who the people of Portsmouth were. It was their culture, their identity. Then, after the 1937 flood, this monstrous wall separated the people from their “soul.” As the mural project began, the City once again developed a sense of community, a common shared identity through the stories along the wall. According to Lorentz, this was a way of reuniting the people with each other and with their river heritage. The art was not a way of dwelling on the past but sharing a common foundation. That sense of community brought about through a display of public art has proven to be instrumental in the future of Portsmouth, Lorentz stated but was a realization it took him nearly three movies to discover.

Lorentz starting working on his first film River Voices in the 1990’s. At that time, he was seeing that there was a need, just to document the stories of those that had been involved in the ‘37 Flood. His father was aging and soon passed away as had many of the people who were his father’s age, which happened to be the generation of those who had lived through the flood.

“I remember hearing stories about the flood all my life,” Lorentz explained.

His father had been one of the men to help rescue people from their homes. Lorentz feared, however, that others would not get to hear these stories. After a little exploration, he found that no one had really documented the accounts outside of a few small projects, so he took the task upon himself.

“I thought I would just document them and then give them to the museum or to Shawnee to store them, so someone else could do something with them,” the history professor stated about what was meant as a historical preservation project.

Then, his son graduated with his masters in film and video production, which gave Lorentz an idea. He decided to ask him if he would be interested in recording the stories as a small project that could bring the two together. The father-son time would be welcomed, considering his son lives in Washington, D.C. Never expecting his son to agree, Lorentz was surprised to find out that the two were going to make a film together.

The next step was funding. Lorentz, with his son by his side, started looking for a way to fund their project. They were able to obtain a small planning grant through the Ohio Humanities Council. At that time, they were informed that the likelihood of getting a full production grant was about one percent. Lorentz decided to put up his own funds to create a demo that would impress them. Driven by the challenge, he created a demo that got him the funding, which was not much more than he spent making the demo.

When the film was complete, Lorentz had the high hopes of filling the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts for its premier, which he more than completed. River Voices also went on the be aired locally and nationally on PBS and had great success.

“We had struck a universal theme,” Lorentz explained. “You didn’t have to be from Portsmouth to appreciate it.”

Yes, River Voices was about the story of Portsmouth, Ohio, but it was also about a community coping with natural disaster.

“It was a story about hope,” Lorentz said. “This community went through hell and was on its knees, but came through it together.”

Lorentz provided a contrasting story using New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina as an example, showing how different that story is because the people did not come together in a time of crisis. Rather, they took from each other and fought and looked for an outside savior, an outside relief effort or funding source that could save them.

The scenes from River Voices would go on to be used for every flood scene of the murals aside from one which was a dramatization of an event that was never photographed.

Lorentz continued by explaining that for a time he liked to walk the flood wall and watch people as they looked upon the murals. He remembers watching a grandfather walking hand-in-hand with his grandson. As they walked, they would stop and Lorentz could see the grandfather point up at the wall and talk to the grandson, telling stories of years past. Lorentz also remembers wondering just how long the man would be able to keep the young boy’s attention and just how long the walk down Portsmouth’s past would be. Surprisingly, the two walked the entire wall, and the boy never lost interest for a second.

“This boy had sort of a wrapped attention,” Lorentz described.

He added that he remembers thinking that the boy would never forget that moment and because of how significant the murals and the stories of them would be to the boy he would always be tied to his community. The murals would become an icon of his community that also had personal value to him. The history of his community would resonate specifically with his history with his grandfather.

“The murals are more than just paint on concrete,” Lorentz stated.

That led to his second movie – Beyond These Walls. The movie was much more difficult to film because it was not a story that followed a clear linear time line. Rather, it was a concept he wished to explore. Beyond These Walls is about the murals and how the resonate with people as well as how community art can bring people together. Again, Lorentz had no hope the film would be a huge success. He only hoped to fill the Vern Riffe Center. Once again, he struck a nerve in people. He touched people far and wide. The film premiered on Nov. 2, 2013 and premiered on PBS locally in February 2014. It was then picked up for national showing and will be televised for the fourth time at 9 p.m. on March 24 on WOSU.

After the film aired, calls started pouring into Lorentz’s office from all over the country and Canada. Lorentz explained that people were calling him from Alaska, New York, Louisiana and even from other parts of Ohio. All of these people came from different walks of life. They were architects, bookstore owners, university professors, journalists and even community development workers. Yet, the story of Portsmouth meant something to each of them. He was even asked to present the film for other communities, which he has done.

People often ask Lorentz if the murals are often vandalized with graffiti. In researching public art, he found that it is often rejected and destroyed by vandals or accepted and preserved. The latter is the case with the Portsmouth murals.

“They are a part of our essence. We all share a sense of ownership for them. This is us. This is ours,” the professor explained.

Because the murals are so representative of Portsmouth as an icon to the area’s history, hardships and accomplishments, everyone shares them.

“You don’t trash your own living room,” Lorentz explained as a metaphor for that’s why everyone takes care of the murals.

Understanding that the river and now the murals unifies the people together as a community, he started to ponder what the overall significance of that unity would become.

He explained that the middle of last century marked the start of a dark time in Portsmouth.

“Since the 50s and 60s, we’ve been in a long-term spiral of being down on ourselves as a community. That didn’t help the overall situation. That isn’t good for entrepreneurship and creativity,” he explained.

He added that the people of Portsmouth started looking for an outside savior, someone else to fix things for them. Instead of working together for a solution, everyone started looking to serve their own self interests.

“The problem was our mentality,” Lorentz explained. “How do you arrest that?”

It was clear that there needed to be a change in thought and change in approach. How to create that was the challenge. What Lorentz found was that with the murals and the history in common, as the people came together with a sense of community they also started thinking in larger community terms, rather than self-serving terms. The people of Portsmouth were changing the way of thinking on their own simply by connecting with each other. Lorentz observed that people from different levels of leadership within different organizations were all coming together to share ideas. The people of Portsmouth started looking toward local assets and self-reliance instead of looking for outside help. They became the people of Portsmouth again. Like those fighting the flood side by side in 1937, the people of Portsmouth are once again pulling each other out of the water.

Lorentz added that the improvements are easy to see when comparing Boneyfiddle 20 years ago and Boneyfiddle today.

“I’m actually very upbeat about Portsmouth turning around,” he commented. “If you open your eyes to the possibilities and start working with your friends and neighbors towards something positive, good things will happen. I think they already are.”

Lorentz added that the people of the City are seeing that if one part suffers, the City suffers.

“A rising tide raises all boats,” he commented.

The good happening now is good for all, but the bad hurts everyone. This is why it is so important that the people take care of each other.

“We all have our humanity in common,” Lorentz said. “You can’t ignore human suffering. You must be a part of the solution.”

Lorentz is now working on his third film, the Dreamland Project, which tells the story of the Dreamland Pool while also looking at the role of public spaces in developing a sense of community. The Dreamland Project is still in production. There is still no date for completion.

Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1930.