One of Crystal Humble Lary’s earliest memories is drawing her childhood crush, Spock from “Star Trek,” when she was a child in the 1980s in Rhode Island. She’d pause the recording on a VHS tape and draw on the back of old radar printouts that her dad would bring home from the Navy base for her.
These days, you can find her painting for an hour or two a day throughout the week in an empty space for lease in the Cascade Park Plaza. A day last week, she was working getting the branches on an apple tree next to Fort Vancouver just right.
“The limbs have to be painted first, because apple trees aren’t really fluffy,” she said, looking off of a photo on her phone, which was taped to the top of the wooden canvas. “They’re stemmy.”
Humble Lary is working on a series of large murals depicting Clark County landmarks for her employer next door, Trader Joe’s grocery store, which anchors the plaza.
The store, which opened in 2001, expanded by about 3,000 square feet in September. The spot at 305 S.E. Chkalov Drive was enduring so much foot traffic that it just needed more space. It now spans around 12,000 square feet.
“Business was growing, so we felt it was best to expand the store to offer our customers just a better customer experience overall,” said Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel. Trader Joe’s is a chain with headquarters in Monrovia, Calif.
The expansion meant more blank wall space. Trader Joe’s prides itself on molding to the neighborhood and utilizing in-house talent to create art that fills the walls and signage.
“Our store artists are really essential to our stores — as are any of our crew members, but they really help bring that neighborhood feel to the store, and you can really see that in the art,” Friend-Daniel said. She emphasized that they don’t really refer to them as artists, though. All Trader Joe’s employees are “crew members” who rotate throughout the day, so everyone has the opportunity to work every type of job.
Still, being on the Trader Joe’s art team is coveted. The Vancouver store — the only one in Clark County (the nearest in Washington being in Olympia) — has five women on its art team. They have a dedicated, albeit tight, space in the back room to work on hand-crafted signage, carefully crafting the typography to convey excitement about an upcoming sale or seasonal produce.
“It’s a highly coveted position, and there are a lot of people in our stores who have talent,” said Anne-Lise M. Sveen, Humble Lary’s manager, which Trader Joe’s actually calls “captains.” “It happens … organically. They’re not necessarily hired for that. They’re hired as a crew member. Once in a while, when you have a new store opening, you’ll hire someone with those special skills.”
Employees can rotate to different Trader Joe’s locations over time. Humble Lary had previously worked at the Hollywood location in Portland. It was the third time Sveen had worked at the Clark County store in her 21 years with the company.
Humble Lary, 37, started working for Trader Joe’s in 2008. She never went to art school, although it was a dream. She had even received a $10,000 scholarship to attend art school, she said. But that still wasn’t enough to cover the cost, which can be a particularly expensive path of higher education because of pricey art supplies. Influencing her decision further was insecurity that her art just wasn’t good enough.
“I was afraid of being rejected. I wanted to go to a really prominent art school. I wanted to use art in a career. As I started to grow up … I thought I was good, but nothing to wow at,” she said.
Her father instead provided money for one year of Bible college. She studied at Ravenrest Chalet in Estes Park, Colo., then moved to Portland to continue studies at Multnomah University. She ditched those plans, however, when she felt she could “read the Bible for free.” Humble Lary then got into Portland’s rock-climbing scene and found a job at Portland Rock Gym, where she met her future husband.
They moved to Vancouver in 2010 when he decided to open a climbing gym downtown, the Source Climbing Center. When it opened in 2011, Humble Lary spent three days working at the gym and three days at Trader Joe’s, though eventually moved to working at Trader Joe’s full time because it offered better benefits.
Initially, Humble Lary was shy about asking to be on the art team at Trader Joe’s. But then she worked up the courage to ask a previous captain.
“I used to paint theater sets in high school, but that was my only painting experience. I had only done pencil,” she said. “He had me paint two cows for the dairy box. I think it was a test to see what I could do. I just winged it, and it turned out great.”
Now she’s working on large-scale murals. She’s already completed several, including a depiction of Beacon Rock, which hangs above salads and veggies.
Back in the empty store space next door where Humble Lary paints, in addition to the nearly-finished Fort Vancouver apple orchard, is a depiction of a Trader Joe’s-themed Union Pacific train — shown with the company’s iconic hibiscus flower painted on the side. Also completed is a detailed painting of the Interstate 5 Bridge, as visualized from the walking path. It’s painted from the perspective of looking out toward Portland, but that was intentional.
“My husband said, ‘You should have painted it looking into Washington from the Portland side.’ I said no, because then you’re in Portland looking over,” said Humble Lary. “I wanted it to be a view you’d see when you live here.”
There will be 12 paintings total and eventually more. She’s been working on them for nearly a year. Once the orchard is complete, the three will go up together.
Humble Lary said she is happy she has a job that allows her to make art.
“I’m very grateful for this job because it’s given me income and support for my family; I have insurance and retirement,” she said. “And, every shift I get to paint, which is so much fun.”