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May 6, 2021

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Vancouver as mural town facing formidable challenges

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
20 Photos
Artist Raphe Hec said creating murals with spray paints is like dancing. “I want to feel the energy in the colors,” he said.
Artist Raphe Hec said creating murals with spray paints is like dancing. “I want to feel the energy in the colors,” he said. Photo Gallery

A big smile spreads across Salvador Larios’ face when he looks at the Martin Luther King Jr. mural on the west-facing wall of his Mexican bakery and grocery.

“We are 100 percent minority in the community. We are the little ones. We are always trying to survive,” said Larios, who came here from Mexico at age 9.

On the east wall of Larios’ shop, Dulce Tentacion (“Sweet Temptation”), is a festive gallery of people with skull faces, or calaveras.

“That is a traditional Hispanic picture,” he said. “I feel part of Hispanic culture, right here in Vancouver.”

Celebrating that culture by adding colorful murals to the gritty Fourth Plain streetscape has been a joint project of the nonprofit groups Clark County Mural Society and Fourth Plain Forward, assisted by the city of Vancouver. This is the third year of the Summer of Murals project along Fourth Plain Boulevard, with proposals vetted and artists hired to add several new diversity-oriented artworks to what’s often called the city’s international district.

Where are the murals?

You’ll find Vancouver’s murals clustered in two main spots: downtown and along Fourth Plain Boulevard.

Downtown murals are along Main, Washington, Broadway and cross streets. Try a self-guided walking tour starting with the Remembrance Wall on Phil Arnold Way, heading west to The Columbian’s big paper-boy mural on Grant Street, then returning to Turtle Place and Main. There’s a downloadable, single-page map at the Visit Vancouver USA site,

The artworks created as part of the Summer of Murals program are along Fourth Plain Boulevard between Fort Vancouver Way and 65th Avenue.

The historic Orchards Feed Mill mural is east of Interstate 205 at Northeast Covington Road.

But the campaign to make Vancouver a real “mural town” has never gone as smoothly and quickly as Jerry Rolling envisioned when he founded the Mural Society in 2004. Rolling, who worked as a Realtor then, wanted to bolster a downtown still struggling to reinvent itself. Today he still sees the approximately two dozen large and small artworks that have appeared on downtown walls as only a peek at what’s still possible — if only property owners, both public and private, would rally around the idea.

Instead, Rolling is steeling himself for the disappearance of several prominent public artworks from downtown — chiefly the towering, glowering Chkalov landing mural on Evergreen Boulevard between Main and Broadway. Cascadia Development Partners’ David Copenhaver, who is renovating that property this summer, did not respond to multiple calls from The Columbian, but Rolling said he’s been told the Chkalov mural is definitely a goner.

“We don’t have the money or the location to move it,” Rolling said. “We’ve got a lot of ideas, but we’re short resources and volunteers. We’re quite disappointed about this.”

‘Nothing is permanent’

The red wingspan of Valery Chkalov’s airplane is so wide, it spills past the boundaries of the vast mural on Evergreen Boulevard and onto some upper-story windows. That’s a nice artistic touch by muralist Guy Drennan, who created this artwork in 2008. The mural commemorates Chkalov’s record-breaking transpolar flight and unexpected landing at Vancouver’s Pearson Field in 1937. Chkalov himself has become something of an adopted hometown hero, and his landing a celebrated moment in Vancouver history.

But a wall is a temporary thing. Drennan said he wasn’t brokenhearted, nor even particularly surprised, to learn that the Chkalov mural is almost certain to come down. “I’m the last to hear anything. I’m just the artist,” he said sardonically. (When this story went to print, workers were still working around the yet-intact mural.)

Drennan, 63, described his journey as a working artist as tough all along. Vancouver’s most recognizable muralist — whose clear, crisp, representational style can be seen on historical murals across town, from the Orchards Feed Mill mural at Covington Square to a paperboy on the east side of this newspaper’s headquarters — spent years paying the bills by working as a mortgage broker and restaurant waiter while pursuing art opportunities after work, he said.

Being a full-time artist really means “I’ve had a glorious career in the food industry,” Drennan joked.

Mural lovers must take change in stride, said Audrey Clark, the mural society’s president.

“Nothing is permanent,” she said. “That’s part of putting art up in public. It may be there for a season, and that season may be not as long as we’d wish.”

Maybe sometimes that’s even a good thing, she said, because the churning signifies a vibrant, growing downtown.

Mural Society founder Rolling feels differently. Vancouver has a self-declared but toothless downtown arts district, he pointed out. A state-certified “creative district” might offer real protections, or even dollars to relocate at-risk artworks.

The Mural Society intends to mount future downtown murals on removable panels, he said — as Drennan did recently with a historical look at early encounter between Japanese and Pacific Northwesterners, now facing a parking lot behind the Kiggins Theatre.

Meanwhile, Rolling recently put Drennan to work on a private project in time for a party commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing. The muralist was down on hands and knees last month in Rolling’s driveway, transforming cracked asphalt into a gleaming star field complete with nebulae and that famously grimacing, bullet-wounded moon face from the 1902 silent film “A Trip to the Moon.”

“This (mural) I expect to be permanent,” said Rolling, who treated the final product with high-quality sealant. But in reality, “permanent” probably means “a few years,” he said.

Downtown gallery

Rolling’s decadeslong mission to make Vancouver a real “mural town” grew out of elements as disparate as his childhood in England and his amazement at the way murals saved the declining logging town of Chaimainus, B.C., he said.

Rolling, 76, grew up feeling the reverberations of two world wars fought right in his global neighborhood, not a whole ocean away. Britons felt those crises far more deeply than Americans did, he believes. “My mother thought we were all going to die,” he said.

In World War I, he noted, as many as 100,000 British soldiers died at the Battle of the Somme. “There were no American casualties in that,” he said.

But Vancouver, the site of a pioneer fort, wartime shipyards and an Army base helmed by the likes of president-to-be Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. George C. Marshall, has a uniquely rich military history that deserves vibrant artistic celebration, he said.

“We have so much wonderful history here, and it’s grossly underutilized,” he said.

Rolling and fellow Realtor Nikki White launched the Clark County Mural Society in 2004, and immediately focused on what was then a dingy, blocked-off railroad berm at the bottom of downtown “that was pretty sad,” Rolling said.

He brainstormed a Remembrance Wall full of murals commemorating foreign wars and local veterans through history. Farthest left is Uncle Sam and a collection of classic “I Want You” posters. Parading right are scenes and personalities from America’s numerous overseas campaigns (as well as some “Wendy the Welder” shipyard workers here at home).

The big, impressive series of images remains unfinished. Mold is starting to spread down the wall.

“It needs baking soda and water and about 30 man hours to get rid of it,” Rolling said. Clark and Gus Melonas, spokesman for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, both said a veteran-driven volunteer effort to clean the wall will get underway soon.

Rolling is always on the lookout for a great wall, and he’s drawn to the big, new, paneled ones on berms under the rest of those railroad tracks, setting off downtown from the new waterfront development. They would be ideal for sweeping new murals, he noted. But officials have assured him that permissions, plans and prices would be prohibitive, he said.

“We’ve got a lot of projects and ideas on the back burner,” Rolling said. “We’d love to see more of the railroad walls become an art gallery for downtown Vancouver. But all these things take resources and maintenance.”

Not to mention permission. Melonas said that Vancouver’s Remembrance Wall is an exception to a general rule: BNSF “doesn’t get involved with” and doesn’t encourage artworks on railroad berms.

How to help

If you’re interested in helping with the cleaning and preservation of Vancouver’s murals, call the Clark County Mural Society at 360-921-7270 or visit online at

“We’re running a railroad here,” he said. “We actively discourage people from being anywhere on our properties.”

Fourth Plain diversity

Even as downtown stands to lose murals, the body of artwork along Fourth Plain is expanding. Eleven “official” Fourth Plain murals now line the boulevard. Call it a dozen if you count the unplanned, extra artwork painted on a shipping container in a parking lot.

Florida muralist Camille Cote (who signs her artworks “FABS”), back in Vancouver for her third consecutive summer, said she had time and supplies left over after finally completing her huge, ongoing, multi-year celebration of children on the west wall of Evergreen Floors and Doors. So she and assistant Raphe Hec whipped up a big, surreal, female face surrounded by what Hec called “wild style” lettering. The final result resembles the kind of sophisticated graffiti art that’s more common in places like Rio de Janeiro than here.

“My view of art has evolved from ‘just a fun thing’ to something that helps the community,” said Clark, who hosted the visiting Cote in her home this summer. “Everybody brings their diversity and that’s really cool.”

On a recent afternoon, Fourth Plain business owners Jackie Steiner of Anderson Glass and Steffan Krueger of Evergreen Floors and Doors watched as Cote and Hec worked. Hec described his fluid spray-can painting technique as akin to dancing.

“It is very dynamic,” he said, pausing to take in the whole picture. “I want to feel the energy in the colors.”

The neighborhood certainly feels that energy, said Steiner, who has championed the Summer of Murals project all along.

“It brings more positive awareness; it helps this area,” she said. “When I drive to work and see this, it makes my day better in no time.”