Camas unveils first mural in planned city series

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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CAMAS — The mural atop the Camas Art Gallery shows an overhead view of Camas and the Crown Willamette paper mill, circa 1900.

It's the first of a series of murals that are planned to take shape around Camas, showing the city's past, present and future. It's also the finishing touch on a rebirth of sorts for the gallery, which closed for repairs Nov. 23 because of flooding caused by a burst pipe in an upstairs apartment. Around the same time, co-owner Sharon Ballard decided to pursue other opportunities and left her position at the gallery, previously known as Ballard & Call.

The gallery reopened Dec. 21 with the unveiling of the mural during a downtown ceremony. Marquita Call, Camas Art Gallery's co-owner, called it a new beginning for her business, which underwent a monthlong renovation to clean up the flood.

The mural, a sweeping vista-scape based on a turn-of-the-century photo, represents the city's past as a hub of logging activity. Organizers of the Camas-Washougal Mural Project hope to attract visitors to the cities by visually highlighting their bygone days — and the prominent citizens who have called them home. Potential mural subjects include local luminaries, such as NASCAR driver Greg Biffle, astronaut Michael Reed Barratt and Earth Day's first national coordinator Denis Hayes.

In Camas and Washougal, the hope is that the murals will lead to increased downtown foot traffic. Mural organizers want the paintings to drum up enough interest that they can start a series of walking tours through the cities, highlighting their histories.

"To keep that special flavor of downtown, we felt the murals would be a real point of interest," said Call, who now runs the gallery with her daughter Jennifer Senescu.

The artist behind Camas' painting is Maria Grazia Repetto, a native Italian who specializes in fresco murals. Her murals have gained renown elsewhere, but this is the first for her in Camas.

She typically has to travel up to Seattle for assignments and welcomes Camas' newfound dedication to her art form.

"I hope to start work in this area," she said. "It's a lot easier than making a move."

Ultimately, whether more murals go up around town will come down to money, Call said. A typical mural can cost thousands of dollars to produce. Most of the money for the first mural came from the "Camas in White" fundraiser, an August dinner to raise money for the project.

Next year's mural, if one takes shape, will likely be paid for in the same manner, Call said. There is a stable of local artists interested in painting it. But it all depends on money, she said.

The mural atop the Camas Art Gallery cost roughly $2,000, but that came at a discount, Call said. Future murals could cost more, she said, depending on the artist hired and the arts supplies required.

Other building owners have also expressed interest in receiving the mural treatment, but those plans haven't made it past the conceptual stage. The mural project's committee is looking at the AWPPW Union Hall and Adams Street Bar & Grill as potential spots for artwork.

Those plans remain solely in the conceptual stage, Call said.

There is a framework for success when it comes to splashing some paint onto the sides of buildings. The Camas-Washougal Mural Project has partnered with the Clark County Mural Society, which has worked with artists to paint scenes throughout Vancouver. The two organizations share the same nonprofit status.

Call said she'd like to imitate the mural society's success in Camas and Washougal. The Vancouver-based mural society started in 2006 with one mural. In the last year, the society has increased the number of murals it's backed to five.

Completion of Camas' mural comes as sweet relief to Call who, only a month ago, was contending with a flooded gallery. None of the artwork was damaged, but she didn't know when the gallery would reopen or whether the planned mural would be completed in time.

Now that it's done, Call said she hopes she can build on the experience.

"I know there will be other artists who will be interested in doing murals as well," Call said. "I want Camas to become a center of activity."