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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Meet the local artist behind a giant, basketball-themed mural coming to Riverfront Park

UPDATED: Tue., June 1, 2021

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Coeur d’Alene native and current Spokane resident Joshua Martel will spend the next two weeks painting a giant mural on a 10,000 square foot basketball court recently unveiled as part of the new playground on the north bank of the Spokane River in Riverfront Park.

The mural, when finished, will depict a man holding a basketball over his heart. Martel said he’s given his mural the name “The Heart of Spokane.”

“I wanted to do something simple and something strong,” he said. “I obviously wanted to do something with basketball because of Hoopfest. Spokane is Hooptown.”

The work will be in a variety of vibrant colors, though it won’t be exactly as Martel envisioned. He originally planned to use a color palette inspired by a photo of a sunset, but found himself limited by the colors available in the durable paint he needs that will stand up to weather, pounding feet and bouncing basketballs.

“The paint is almost like concrete itself when it dries,” he said. “This product will stand for hopefully 10 years.”

The mural is sponsored by Spokane Arts, Hooptown USA and MultiCare Regional Health System. Spokane Arts is also providing two paid apprentices to work with Martel and help him finish the giant project. Both of the artists, Greyson Hatcher and Sara Conybeer, have some experience with murals and wanted to learn more. They are among artists who answered an open call this spring to be considered for mural apprenticeships.

Martel said he selected Hatcher and Conybeer from the roster of artists maintained by Spokane Arts. He said it’s not unusual for him to hire assistants for large projects, though in this case the stipend for the apprentices is being paid by Spokane Arts.

Previously, Martel was an apprentice himself. He worked with Faith47, a South African muralist based in Los Angeles. The two worked together for years and still collaborate on projects occasionally, Martel said.

When he was growing up in Coeur d’Alene, Martel had no aspirations to be an artist.

“I never thought about art,” he said. “I never made art.”

He moved to Portland when he was 18 and happened upon a mural festival put on by Forest for the Trees, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating public art. He was inspired to pick up a paint brush.

“I just saw people painting and it looked fun,” he said.

At that time, Martel was considering going into business as a coffee roaster. He said his choice was to be a broke coffee roaster or a broke artist. He chose art.

“I started making art because it’s a creative therapy,” he said.

Like most muralists, Martel uses a different name to sign his work – Oowah, a variant of his first name.

Now he travels the country painting murals. For large projects like the one in Riverfront Park, he divides the space into a grid. “I make a bunch of 20-foot sections and work on a section at a time,” he said. “They all come together at the end.”

Martel and his apprentices will spend hours a day painting for more than two weeks. “It’s physically demanding,” he said. “Creating art on such a large scale, you’re using both sides of your brain.”

Over Memorial Day weekend, he opened a gallery, called Oowah Zoo, at the corner of Second and Howard in downtown Spokane. His work can also be seen on a basketball court at Chief Garry Park, where he recently completed a mural.

Martel said if there’s one thing he’d like to convey, it would be that it is important for people to listen to their heart and follow their passion. It’s what led him to his life as an artist.

“Our life is one big work of art,” he said.

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