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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City of Spokane seeks new manhole cover designs through contest

Clair Mattes won an art contest for designing manhole covers for the city of Spokane in 2010. Her winning entry was drawn during class at Shaw Middle School in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Kids age 18 and under have the opportunity to have their art work displayed on the streets of Spokane for decades to come if they design the winning entry in the Wastewater Access Cover Contest.

Wastewater access covers, typically called manhole covers, are placed all over the city and must be replaced when they get damaged or are worn out. The city typically orders them in large batches every five years so they have a ready supply on hand, said Spokane Arts Program Manager Karen Mobley.

“They make a mold and then they cast the access covers in bulk,” she said. “This will be the third time we have partnered with the city and the wastewater treatment folks.”

The contest is sponsored by Spokane Arts, the city of Spokane, The Lands Council and The Spokesman-Review. The top six designs will be printed in The Spokesman-Review once the winners are selected. Only the first-place winner will have his or her artwork cast in iron and made into manhole covers.

When the first contest was conceived 10 years ago the city’s sewer maintenance department was looking for ways to help educate the public, and youth in particular, about what happens when hazardous materials make their way into the wastewater system via storm drains and people’s kitchen sinks, Mobley said.

It’s also a good way for young artists to practice their skills, she said. “It gives them an opportunity to create a work of art but it also gives them entry into an important conversation,” she said. “Who knows, they might grow up to be the next Harold Balazs.”

The rules are fairly simple. The design must be reflective of the ecology, water, nature, creatures or landscape of the Inland Northwest. “The hope is they will make a design that says something,” Mobley said. “That gives them a big, wide range of things to think about.”

Because the winning artwork will be cast in iron, there are some limitations. The manhole covers won’t be painted because paint would simply wear off due to car traffic and weather. The work should be high contrast with large, simple shapes without any fine details. “It has to be simple enough in design that the fabricator can turn it into a mold,” she said. “It could actually be fairly abstract.”

Past contestants have featured their favorite fish, the Spokane River and well-known Spokane landmarks, Mobley said.

In addition to helping educate youth about wastewater, the contest also provides a beautification element. There are already manhole covers across the city featuring the art created by previous contest winners, but they can be hard to spot at 30 mph.

Mobley calls the artistic covers a “street surprise.”

“A careful looker of things will see it while walking,” she said. “Someone driving in a car will not see that.”

The winner of the 2010 access cover contest was Clair Mattes, who was then a seventh-grader at Shaw Middle School. In 2015 the contest winner was 13-year-old Seth Tibbs, a student at Chase Middle School.

The deadline for the contest is Jan. 15.

The first-place winner will receive $100 and tickets to the Blue Zoo, an interactive aquarium in NorthTown Mall, in addition to having the artwork appear on hundreds of manhole covers. The person in second place will receive $50 and tickets to the Blue Zoo.