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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Her concrete canvas on a hill: Spokane artist picked to paint Seattle parking garage

Ellen Picken touches up the mural she designed and worked on for the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle on Tuesday. Picken’s design was selected from a competition of almost 40 international artists. The mural spans two 100-foot sections of the building. (Rajah Bose)

SEATTLE – Ellen Picken has to be philosophical about the “canvas” for her abstract mural: Two stories of concrete walls interspersed with glass window panes on a busy corner of First Hill, just above downtown.

“You can’t get too attached to it,” she said during a pause this week between finishing touches to the black-on-white geometric shapes on the old building. “There’s going to be graffiti. Dirt will get on it. Plants will grow out of it. Someday, it will come down.”

But in the meantime, Picken – a Spokane artist chosen in an international competition of muralists to dress up the garage of the historic Sorrento Hotel nearby – wants to give residents, commuters and pedestrians an image that triggers their imaginations.

The building itself was a bit of an eyesore in the area near Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital. The Sorrento management and the surrounding community secured a grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods to help with the cost. Built in the late 1940s or early 1950s as a taxi dispatch building, it has been owned by the Sorrento since at least the 1970s and operates as the garage for valet parking, said Jena Thornton of Magnetic ERV, which owns the hotel.

Magnetic recently finished a major renovation of the Sorrento, which was built in 1909 and is the city’s oldest hotel still in its original use, Thornton said. That renovation is a mixture of modern and historic, and the company was looking for something modern for the garage on the corner of Madison Street and Ninth Avenue. The project manager was familiar with the city’s Neighborhood Match Funds project, which helps pay for public art, parks and workshops, among other things, and successfully applied for a grant in 2012, which came to $49,251.

“The community sees an opportunity to bring the neighborhood together and beautify an area,” said Lois Maag, a department spokeswoman. “While some people see a blank wall, others see opportunity.”

One of the main criteria for a grant from the 27-year-old program is grassroots community involvement. The Sorrento management had two meetings in the hotel for First Hill-Capitol Hill residents, and got the hotel staff involved, Thornton said.

When Magnetic put the project up for bid, the company received 39 proposals from artists all over the world, suggesting a wide range of imagery, from faces to local portraits to water droplets, Thornton said.

“It was actually stiff competition,” she said. “Ellen’s work was unique in that it’s so crisp.”

The abstract design of strong lines and angular shapes was chosen from among three finalists. It helped that Magnetic seeks local sources whenever possible, and being from Spokane, Picken was on the outer edges of local.

It was only her second large outdoor mural; her first was the Wall Street underpass in downtown Spokane.

Born and raised in Spokane Valley, Picken, 35, has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Eastern Washington University and has studied in Germany, but she credits the 10 years she spent in rural Ferry County as having a major influence on her art.

“There’s the rhythm of the way things interact with each other and a sense of space,” she said of the area near Republic, Washington. “Abstract doesn’t influence how I see nature, but nature influences how I see everything.”

She moved to Spokane about a year ago, and will soon start a job as a program manager for Spokane Arts.

For the mural competition, she wanted an abstract geometrical design that worked with a demographically diverse neighborhood, drew out the good elements of surrounding architecture without competing with them, and didn’t add to the noise of the busy intersection. She chose black and white because each color is emotionally charged for the viewer.

“I want to leave the image interpretation up to the viewer, so they reflect on their own feelings of the space they live in,” she said.

The design for three sides of the building, roof-line to sidewalk, was a big project, but taking it step by step with her assistant Phyllis Austin made each step manageable, she said. Painting public art on a large scale is different than working in a studio or alone at a landscape. The design was created in her studio, so the painting of the actual space is a combination of hard labor – hauling 5-gallon buckets of paint up and down the scaffolding – and engineering the design. Or sometimes re-engineering, like when she discovered the building is actually 2 feet shorter than the plans she was given, and the design had to be modified.

The work allows for interaction with the public that doesn’t happen in the studio, like when a resident of a nearby apartment building whose windows face the garage came to tell her she was improving his quality of life. Or when a woman passing on the sidewalk shouted up to her and Austin on the scaffolding “Way to represent!” There aren’t many female muralists because the work is physically demanding, Picken said.

Such interactions are important for a muralist, Picken said: “That’s how I know what I’m doing is right.”