On the side of a pedestrian bridge right outside of downtown Lewiston, a bright blue and yellow rattlesnake leaps out from the otherwise unassuming landscape. Three sockeye salmon adorn the opposite side of the 200-foot-long bridge, which crosses Highway 12.
The piece, titled “Confluence” in reference to the converging of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, is by Spokane artist Melissa Cole. Typical of Cole’s trademark style, the piece is vibrant and playful, an image from nature fused with a sense of magical realism.
“I was always surrounded by bright colors and textures and patterns when I was growing up,” Cole said. She was born in Oregon, but lived in India (where her father is from), Hong Kong and London before moving back to the States as a child.
Her globetrotting habits continued into adulthood: After graduating with degrees in zoology and marine ecology from Oregon State University, Cole traveled to the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps and later became a wildlife guide in the Galapagos and Mexico. She continues to travel with her husband, a wildlife photographer; they recently went diving among WWII shipwrecks in the central Pacific. Cole says her visits to various countries, both past and present, have inspired the ethnic influences in much of her art.
Creating art has always been a part of Cole’s life; her mother is also an artist, working primarily in watercolors. Cole began with paint on a canvas, but she moved more toward sculpture and ceramics in college art classes. Her most striking pieces employ mixed media – copper, clay, fiberglass and mosaic.
Created through a grant from Lewiston’s Urban Renewal Agency, “Confluence” is made up of 155 separate concrete panels of glass mosaic. Those pieces are bolted through the bridge, supplying a view for both the traffic driving under and the pedestrians walking through.
The mosaic work on display was created with the assistance of the participants in a public art workshop Cole led near the end of 2012. “It’s important that I try and involve the community in some way,” Cole said, “so they have some sort of ownership of the piece.”
Just a few blocks away from the “Confluence” bridge, Cole has erected a free-standing sculpture called “Something Fishy,” which features a 5-foot-tall blue heron and a 6-foot-long sturgeon.
Closer to home, Cole is known for her large installation “Riverdance” at the Spokane Convention Center. She also recently unveiled “Onward and Upward,” a community mosaic at the Jacklin Arts and Cultural Center in Post Falls, where she is currently exhibiting her paintings. Next on Cole’s schedule is work on a project in Riverfront Park, a garden featuring sculptures that represent Spokane and each of its four sister cities in Japan, China, Korea and Ireland. Cole is designing the Spokane sculpture, and she expects construction to be underway as early as next summer.
“I want to make uplifting artwork,” Cole said, “and I want people to gasp the first time they see it. It’s why I use so many iridescent and bright colors.”
“I think we should see more images of nature in an urban setting,” she continued, “and I want to bring a natural history to our concrete world.”