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Washougal native Travis London’s murals are scattered across Clark County, a way to fight for the environment

'The destruction of the natural environment has had a large impact on how I see the world,' he said.

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 11, 2024, 6:03am
8 Photos
One of Travis London&rsquo;s murals depicts a human hand reaching for three bear cubs on one of downtown Washougal&rsquo;s oldest buildings.
One of Travis London’s murals depicts a human hand reaching for three bear cubs on one of downtown Washougal’s oldest buildings. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — A lamp cast a warm glow in the corner of Travis London’s small studio, where one of his works in progress perched on an easel. The painting depicts a wide-eyed elk tilting its head upward with transmission towers emerging from its antlers.

It’s a gift for his friend who recently published a book about how growing demands for electrification — and subsequent industrial development — are encroaching on wildlife habitat.

This is the crowd London surrounds himself with, in part, because he’s personally familiar with how environmental decline manifests. He tries to convey it to others through his art and potentially spur them to action.

“The destruction of the natural environment has had a large impact on how I see the world,” he said.

Locally, London’s murals morph dull brick, concrete and metal surfaces into ones teeming with life. From a goldfinch on the Van Vista Plaza to beavers on Port of Camas-Washougal industrial buildings, traces of his work are scattered across Clark County. Not all these projects are used as activism, London said, but he attempts to weave nature’s beauty and power into as many murals as possible.

London grew up along the Washougal River, about a mile down the road from where he currently lives and paints. As a child, London roamed among tall trees where he saw a menagerie of wildlife — rabbits, squirrels, deer and mountain lions. He said life was still and quaint. The family’s dog basked in the sun on Northeast Washougal River Road’s warm surface, where London would rocket around on his bike.

Now, he says that’s unimaginable.

A growing population and robust resource industries have flooded that road with traffic in recent decades, London said. Flashes of salmon bellies in the Washougal River have dwindled over time, too, something he recognized was worsening “but never thought it would happen so fast.” Through travel and research, London has learned how environmental decline manifests elsewhere, introducing him to various conservation organizations and campaigns. He usually offers to make artwork for these causes, whether to be used for banners or educational flyers. Most recently, London’s sketches advocate for protecting Nevada’s Thacker Pass from lithium mining.

Beth Robson, who met London through the Thacker Pass campaign, said he’s adept at illustrating the power of nature against the staggering forces of industrialization — the “resistance rather than the dark.”

London hopes his efforts serve as a call to action for more people to do the same.

“Our art becomes less about the individual and more about the common vision and aspirations of many,” he said. “Ultimately, our art becomes part of a culture of resistance.”

Mural inspiration

London became interested in murals in the early 2000s when he briefly lived in Santiago, Chile, a place known for its galleries of urban art. He recalled seeing massive paintings existing on every city corner, presenting color and commentary.

Chilean street art originated in the late 1960s in the face of political unrest. During this time, Brigada Ramona Parra, a collective of painters and activists, set to the streets to foment social change through large-scale imagery. The group still exists today. London felt moved by their capacity to weave social justice into something visual and, even further, by the people who sustained the tradition. Before returning to Washington, he left fragments of himself in Santiago through the mural scene.

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London, an art teacher for Vancouver Public Schools, strives to share his passion of communicating through creative expression with his students. He said everyone has a natural inclination to explore their imagination and escape days that often feel “prepackaged,” especially children.

Latoya Lovely, an educator and muralist, met London when they were both recruited in 2020 to create a Black Lives Matter mural in Northeast Portland. They bonded through their mutual teaching experience where they showed children how to express themselves — how to celebrate their power and joy through something tangible.

“Art is life. It heals. It teaches. It is representational and powerful,” Lovely said. “Art invites people into spaces to contribute to growth.”

A 100-foot-long restaurant wall in Washougal features London’s favorite project to date, where he was able to share his views on environmental degradation in a noticeable public display. The mural depicts endangered animal species forcibly pushing through cracks in the wall, a sight London describes as nature resurging from the dark place humans placed them in.

Janice Ferguson, a Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance board member, said her favorite of London’s murals depicts a human hand reaching for three bear cubs on one of downtown Washougal’s oldest buildings. The mural, based on an expedition entry from Lewis and Clark, shows how hunters traded the cubs with Chinook people for wapato. She said the painting, which can be pondered while drinking at the brewery across the street, is underrated.

“Travis’s work connects people to this place,” she said. “It makes them think a bit.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer