July 17, 2010 in Washington Voices

Concrete canvas

Young artists brighten downtown underpasses with vibrant murals
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Melissa Cole, 43, and Sarah Pierce, 18, add a few final touches of detail to the railway underpass at Fourth Avenue and Sunset Boulevard on July 1. The theme for this mural is “The Wacky World of Harold Balazs.”
(Full-size photo)

Not all art is found in galleries or museums. In fact, motorists and pedestrians who travel through the railroad underpass on Fourth Avenue, east of Sunset Boulevard, have a visual treat in store. A serene aqua-colored river painted on a lilac background sparkles in its urban setting.

That underpass is one of three receiving artistic makeovers this summer, courtesy of the Inland Northwest Community Foundation, Rotary Club 21 and the Spokane Arts Commission. Karen Mobley, the city’s arts director, said the Spokane Arts Commission has been working on graffiti abatement since the 1990s.

“The intent is to get rid of graffiti and make the entrances into downtown more welcoming and cheerful,” said Mobley.

On June 28, local artist Melissa Cole and a group of young artists from WorkSource Spokane’s Next Generation Zone, as well as student volunteers from area colleges, began work on the Fourth Avenue underpass.

Within a few days, a vibrant tribute to Spokane artist Harold Balazs appeared. The river mural, bordered by trees, flowers and wildlife, features a portrait of Balazs as its centerpiece. Eighteen-year-old Sarah Pierce painted the artist in midstream with a fishing rod clasped in his hands. A brilliantly-hued rainbow trout leaps out of the water with an open mouth, as if to taste the tempting lure dangling from Balazs’ line.

Pierce said when she heard about the mural project she immediately wanted to be part of it. “I’ve always been into art,” she said. She’s been delighted by the response from the public. “Everyone who drives by has been so supportive.”

That doesn’t surprise Mobley. “We get the most appreciation for the murals we do,” she said. “It’s art for the people, and it’s appreciated by a wide audience.”

Cole agreed: “A couple of homeless guys in the area came up and said, ‘Thank you for brightening up our home.’ ”

Painting on pock-marked concrete is no easy task. In fact, Mobley said, “It’s not for the weak of leg or heart.”

The size of the canvas can be intimidating. Cole estimates the Fourth Street underpass includes 85 to 95 feet of art. She said the pitted surface prevents painting fine details. “You have to change the size and complexity,” she added.

Whitworth art student Cassie Wiuff said the underpass is “really bumpy, and I’m really detailed and perfectionistic!”

In addition, the rough surface takes a toll on paint brushes. That’s why Cole was surprised and pleased when a local paint shop owner stopped by with a donation of brushes and rollers.

“It really is a community project,” Mobley said.

Cole and her crew will also create murals in an underpass near Steam Plant Square on Lincoln Street and one near the Brooklyn Deli on Monroe Street. She smiled down from her ladder and said, “I hope this brightens up the area and makes people feel safer.”

Mobley said in addition to beautifying the city, the mural project engages young people in civic action so they take pride in their community.

That pride was apparent as Elizabeth Honrud, 17, pointed out a blue heron and a large sunflower she’d painted. A train rumbled overhead as she sketched a tiger lily at the water’s edge. “It’s a great work experience,” she said. “And it’s great to work with people who share the same passion.”


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