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‘Mural madness’ is taking Corvallis by storm
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‘Mural madness’ is taking Corvallis by storm

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Corvallis is getting a lot more colorful these days, and it’s not just the leaves turning: Everywhere you look, bright splashes of paint are turning blank walls into vibrant works of public art.

Among the latest examples is “Maya,” a bold depiction of a wild-haired earth goddess whose flowing locks blend seamlessly into green jungle vines on one side and blue ocean waves on the other. The eye-grabbing image, which adorns the west wall of TacoVino at 151 NW Monroe Avenue, was created by former Corvallis resident Skye Walker in a two-day span earlier this month and has been turning heads ever since.

On a recent sunny afternoon, friends Josh Armentano and David Weidenbacher stopped to take a look at the new mural and snap some photos.

“I love art and love to see it displayed around town,” said Armentano, who teaches graphic design at Crescent valley High School. “I love the imagery and what it adds to the building.”

Weidenbacher, a freelance graphic designer, had a similar response.

“Driving down Second Street this morning, it caught my eye,” he said. “I appreciate local artists doing their thing and (art) going up on local businesses.”

That’s the sort of reaction Jennifer Moreland was hoping for when she launched her Corvallis Mural Project (formerly known as the Corvallis Downtown Mural Project) a little over a year ago.

Inspired by street art she had seen in Los Angeles, Moreland began looking for ways to kickstart the mural scene in Corvallis. But there’s more to it than just picking up a few cans of paint and some brushes at the hardware store.

“There’s always three different things that have to happen,” she said: “Finding an artist, finding a property and finding a sponsor.”

Moreland said she makes an effort to find artists with a proven track record of producing quality work on a large scale. “Not just anyone can paint a mural,” she said.

Not everyone is willing to donate wall space, either, but a number of downtown property owners have now come forward. Some have definite ideas about what they want and have commissioned a particular design, while others are willing to turn the artist loose and just see what happens.

Finally, Moreland wants to be sure artists are compensated fairly for their work. Sponsorship money covers the cost of materials plus the artists’s fee, she said.

By September 2016, all those elements had come together to produce the project’s first two murals in a downtown alley: “Take Flight,” a pair of giant hawk’s wings painted by Oregon State University graduate Alice Marshall, and “Mountain Sunset,” a geomorphic figure by Corvallis artist Sage Zahorodni.

The Corvallis Mural Project has now come to include a total of eight murals, some brokered by Moreland and others that were created independently but are now affiliated with CMP. Eventually Moreland hopes to have a website with a map showing the locations of all the murals.

“CMP to me is about making art accessible to everyone and making it so everyone can find it,” Moreland said. “It’s a resource I’m trying to provide the community.”

Start of a trend

One unexpected effect of the project is that it seems to have touched off a flurry of wall-painting activity by artists who have no connection with CMP.

And that’s just fine with Moreland.

“It’s mural madness!” she said with a grin.

Marnie Ernst Zoa and a number of other artists affiliated with Voices Gallery got into the act when the owner of their building, the Jefferson Plaza at 301 SW Fourth St., asked them to paint over some graffiti on a second-story wall.

The result was a rather psychedelic rendering of a bald eagle looking out over the parking lot. That was followed by another project on the opposite wall, a colorful rendering of the sun and moon against backdrop of mountains, trees and sky titled “Day Into Night.”

While not officially part of the Corvallis Mural Project, Zoa credits CMP with creating a welcoming atmosphere for large-scale wall paintings.

“They’re popping up like crazy,” she said.

“I’m thrilled about it,” she added. “I almost wonder whether we might not make some sort of record – I would love to be the most muraled small town in America.”

Eileen Hinckle likes that idea too.

A 27-year-old artist who grew up in Corvallis, Hinckle now lives in Valparaiso, Chile, and spends most of her time in South America, where street art is a lively and important part of the cultural scene. She’s been painting murals for about 3½ years now and currently makes her living as a muralist.

On a recent trip home to visit her parents, Hinckle found time to paint several murals, including a massive piece of wall art on the side of Riverview Mongolian Grill at 230 NW First St. titled “Aguante Pachamama” that depicts a weary-looking Mother Nature juxtaposed with a solar eclipse.

While her project wasn’t instigated by Moreland, Hinckle said she’s happy to be affiliated with the Corvallis Mural Project and loves the way the city’s murals seem to play off each other.

“Murals have more power if they’re connected,” she said. “It’s a sort of snowball effect.”

Everybody’s a critic

As you might expect, not everyone is enamored of the Corvallis Mural Project.

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Moreland said she parted ways with the Downtown Corvallis Association – an initial backer of the project – after an influential DCA member disparaged the murals.

Another critic is Dan Hitchcock, a full-time professional artist who lives in Corvallis. Hitchcock, who often partners on projects with his wife, Mae, estimates he’s painted hundreds of murals in his career, a number of which can be seen around Corvallis.

Hitchcock’s local productions include an orange 1950s pickup truck on the side of Jerry’s Precision Muffler on Northwest Buchanan Avenue, two large-scale projects on the back of the Old World Deli on Southwest Second Street and his most recent project, an American flag mural commissioned by Corvallis Battery at 516 SW Fourth.

He said Moreland has talked to him “a couple of times” about possible mural projects but so far hasn’t seen fit to hire him, and he expressed disappointment that some local mural jobs have been going to out-of-state artists.

And while Hitchcock said some of the murals that have appeared recently in the city are well done, he feels others fall short of professional standards.

“I’m a huge fan of some contemporary painters,” he said. “And some of it’s just kind of cheesy.”

Local attorney Lorena Reynolds worked with Moreland to commission a mural for the side of her law offices at 225 SW Fourth St. this summer, in part to deal with a chronic graffiti problem. New Mexico artist Sebastian “Vela” Velasquez covered the entire wall in a colorful nature scene featuring deer, salmon and a beaver, with a waterfall and a purple Marys Peak in the background.

Reynolds said she’s very pleased with the result and so is almost everyone she’s talked to about it, although she has heard a few complaints from people who don’t think mountains should be purple. And, for the most part, she’s pleased with the other murals covering downtown walls.

“Some of them I love, and some of them I don’t love,” she said. “Isn’t that the point of art?”

And Reynolds has this to say to the critics: “I happen to not love all the graffiti that’s been popping up, and isn’t this a great way to deal with a problem we’ve all been complaining about for years?”

For her part, Moreland acknowledged that some people aren’t enamored of the Corvallis Mural Project but said in general the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It just goes to show it’s all in the eye of the beholder,” Moreland said. “You’ll never make everyone happy.”

Art and commerce

Of course, there were murals in Corvallis long before CMP got off the ground.

American Dream Pizza co-owner Mark O’Brien, who helped sponsor several murals in the alley behind the downtown location, pointed out that the exterior wall of the campus-area Dream on Northwest Monroe Avenue has been adorned with murals of pop culture icons including James Brown and Sonny and Cher since the early 1990s.

And a mural commissioned by local businessman David Lin for the Tibet House, a building he owns at Southwest Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue, has been making waves since it was completed in 2012. The painting, which champions the cause of freedom for Tibet and Taiwan, sparked an attempt by the Chinese government to have it taken down and has drawn high praise from Tibetan and Taiwanese groups.

Cynthia Spencer, executive director of The Arts Center, pointed out that Corvallis has a long and rich tradition of street art, from the Alley Art Project that lines both sides of Madison Avenue between and the OSU campus to the “Waterdance” columns along Second Street and a variety of sculptures and other installations up and down the riverfront.

She sees the Corvallis Mural Project as a welcome addition to that tradition and a catalyst for still more artistic expression.

“It’s exciting to see so much new art going out before the public,” she said. “People may not think about art on a daily basis, but now they’re going to see something new every time they come downtown. That in itself is just fantastic.”

All that public art may also be good for business.

According to a recent study conducted by Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts industry generated $166.3 billion in economic activity nationwide in 2015. All that spending by cultural organization and their audiences supported 4.6 million jobs and pumped $27.5 billion into federal, state and local government coffers, the study concluded.

In Corvallis, the study found that arts and culture organizations spent more than $27.5 million in fiscal 2015 while their audiences spent over $44.3 million, contributing a total of $71.9 million to the local economy and directly or indirectly supporting 1,968 jobs.

Mary Pat Parker, executive director of Visit Corvallis, said the bumper crop of murals sprouting up all over town could help attract some additional tourism.

“I think it’s an extra added detail that makes the town interesting,” she said.

In fact, Parker’s thinking about using the murals as part of a promotional campaign.

“I think we have a very colorful city, a very creative city,” she said. “If you put those three C’s together – colorful, creative Corvallis – it creates a very powerful image.”

Coming attractions

Are there more murals in Corvallis’ future? Without a doubt.

Moreland said she’s having “a lot of conversations” about additional projects, although she doesn’t want to share the details until agreements are in place.

But she noted that street art is dynamic by nature. Some of the murals now adorning Corvallis walls could be painted over eventually (that’s already happened at least once – Dan Hitchcock’s whimsical “Oregon” mural on the back of the former Buckingham Palace building at 600 SW Third St. was recently covered by a glossy coat of gray paint), and others will almost certainly appear in new and unexpected places.

“Ideally there would be one that pops up every year as something that’s new and fun and exciting,” Moreland said.

“I don’t know what the future looks like for murals in Corvallis. I’m just glad they’re being accepted and enjoyed by people right now.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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