On Wednesday, a woman and her young son walked past a building in downtown Corvallis where Rip Cronk was painting a mural of frolicking teddy bears.
“He was looking at it and before you know it he was doing the teddy bear dance,” the 71-year-old artist said. “I could not like that more.”
Cronk, who lives in Philomath, began painting the mural on Monroe Avenue last month. The painting is on the south side of the Yoga Center of Corvallis building between Second and Third streets. When finished in the next few weeks, the mural will be 100-feet long and 20-feet high.
The painting, done with airbrushed exterior house paint, depicts colorful dancing teddy bears singing the lyrics of an old song titled, “Man Smart, Woman Smarter.” At the bears’ feet are buildings seen in the area, including the Benton County Courthouse, the Wells Fargo bank and the TacoVino restaurant. The mural is brightly colored and done in graffiti-style.
“I’m looking for the opportunity to put murals out there that represent the community, that become icons for the community and represent the values and feelings here,” Cronk said.
He said the mural is meant to be a symbol of empowerment for women. The lyrics the bears are singing include, “I say, it’s the women today, smarter than the man in every way.” The words were written by a Calypso musician called King Radio in the 1930s. The song has been re-recorded by Harry Belafonte, the Grateful Dead and other artists.
“It’s meant as an empowerment of women,” Cronk said. “The song has been made famous generation after generation for the same reason.”
Some local residents have called the mural sexist. Cronk said he doesn’t disagree with that but that there’s a greater social conversation to be had on the issue.
“If women were sort of really equal in society and got equal pay … then you could say, oh this is sexist. But they’re not,” he said.
Cronk said most of the feedback he has received about the mural has been positive. He’s glad the art is engaging the community and creating a dialogue.
He said he got the idea of the cartoon bears from the Grateful Dead. He painted shadows of the bears in a futurist style to make them look like they’re in transition through time. He also used complimentary colors hazed together to make the bears look animated in the sunlight. The mural’s title is "Cultural Transformation," Cronk said.
He said the mural persuades viewers to follow along with the bears as they read the lyrics.
“Instead of just glancing at it, you’re compelled to go along and read every one of them,” he said. “So by the time you’ve read the whole verse you’ve sort of got it. It’s worked its magic as community art.”
Cronk said he is not being paid to paint the mural but has sponsors to pay for the paint and rented lift.
After graduating with a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of New Mexico, Cronk painted his first mural in 1978 in Hawaii. The painting was of Princess Kaiulani. After completing several murals on the islands, Cronk moved to California, where he became known for his murals at Venice Beach, including "Homage to a Starry Night" and multiple Botticelli parodies. He said he enjoys working in the community and having his art be publicly accessible.
“Art that is isolated to a fine art gallery didn’t work for me,” said Cronk, who got his start as a sculptor. “This was a broader audience.”
Cronk moved to Oregon about six years ago. His first mural here was a 145-foot wide, 27-foot tall portrait of four athletes at Linn-Benton Community College. He has also painted murals at Crescent Valley High School.
Pictures of some of Cronk's murals can be seen on his website at http://www.rcronk.com.