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She finds inspiration in the history of her small hometown of less than 1,500 people.

Then she coats her backdrop with colors of the past, pouring her heart into each painting.

Barb Dilly, of Shell Rock, has a new mural going up in the town’s historic downtown — this time depicting a switchboard operator from the Shell Rock Telephone Exchange.

“Everything was pretty much happening here,” Dilly explained of her reasoning for painting this scene.

The muse is Faye Vossberg, a friend to Dilly, who lives just down the street from where the mural is taking shape at the Butler-Bremer Communications building.

Vossberg, a switchboard operator at the time, is pictured in Shell Rock’s history book, “Shell Rock: More Water Under The Bridge.” As noted in the book, a switchboard is a device that manually connects one group of telephones to another. Transferring the calls for a number of years was Vossberg.

“I’m enjoying painting her, because Faye is still a very attractive woman, and she has red hair as you can see, she was quite pretty,” Dilly said as she admired her work. “She just laughed [when I told her I would be painting her]. She’s been a big part of our local history and restoring our history, so she enjoys this sort of thing.”

The building, which now houses the internet service provider, Butler-Bremer Communications, is a field office for the main branch in Plainfield. Dilly said that she was approached by one of the employees who asked her to paint a mural on the building, to which she gladly agreed.

Dilly has painted a number of murals throughout the downtown district to date, including a Coca-Cola sign, a hometown mural and oil painting panels that now adorn the walls of City Hall. 

The latest one, though, is a favorite.

With a brown trim that matches the roof of the building and a burgundy outline that coordinates with the color of the doors, Dilly has been praised by the business for her seamless incorporation of the mural. 

But, they aren’t the only ones impressed with her work. 

“I get people stopping by all the time,” Dilly said. “When I first started, they wanted to know what I was painting, and I said, ‘You’ll have to wait and see,’ so that has been kind of fun.

“Now the kids walk by, and people enjoy Shell Rock history. They are very kind, they say, ‘Oh it’s so pretty, we like it, you’re doing a good job.’ They like having things in the town that are interesting.”

And with this painting, Dilly has let her creative juices flow. Logging over 50 hours so far, she has free-handed a plant in place of papers in the photo and even wanted to add a cat in the corner of the room — though Faye advised her against it.

“Having artistic license is fun, I like that,” Dilly said.

Trained artistically, Dilly made a living selling her artwork, before she started her career. Now, she is an anthropology professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where she has a second home.

And while this is just a hobby for now, Dilly loves the work she does and is hoping to find a younger apprentice to share her knowledge with.

“I like to play around with the details — I’m slow that way,” Dilly said. “I’m slow, you know, I couldn’t be a professional mural painter, they slap stuff up in a day, and I do it for a hobby.”