Street Art Serves as Foundation for Olympia Artists

By Anna Schlecht

Olympia has become a “city of murals”, with an ever-growing number of large format artworks on walls across the urban hub and beyond. Some murals appear overnight, executed without payment or permission. Others are juried by experts and commissioned for thousands of dollars.

Into this pantheon of public art enters a unique mural, “Holding up Olympia,” a collaborative piece that was artistically guided by local artist Chelsea Baker, funded by donations and painted by local children and their families.

While muralists often work with teams, this project was different in that most of the painters were under 10 years old, accompanied by their parents. Most of them had never done anything like this before.

“Working on this mural was a lot of fun because I got to collaborate with a lot of other people and many of them didn’t consider themselves to be very artistic,” said Baker. “I really love encouraging people to make art even if they don’t think they’re good at it.”

Baker, a locally renowned cartoon artist, reflected on the differences of working in a small-scale cartoon format vs. the large scale of a mural, saying, “it was really exciting to work on giant pieces with life-sized figures that will be sitting in a very public place for years to come.” 

The original concept for the piece was to replicate a localized version of a popular 1960’s postcard motif that features a place’s name chock-filled with iconic images. Like all collaborations, the concept evolved. Soon, the huge letters were accompanied by images of people in the proposal sketch. The concept ultimately placed greater emphasis on the people holding up the letters spelling out the place name, lining up the figures as a multi-footed foundation.

Taken together, the mural portrays a city held up by its residents, represented by 41 humans, six dogs and cats – although some are hard to differentiate – and one dragon fly.

When approached for permission, property owners Ray and Barbara LaForge loved the proposal. Previously, they had been approached by several artists who wanted to use this highly visible wall along Water Street that faces the waterfront.

Ultimately, the LaForges chose this mural because of its relationship to the fountain as a downtown park that draws many families with kids. “People tell us how much they like it all the time,” Ray LaForge said shortly after completion.

One surprising aspect of this mural is how closely it mirrors the tectonic generational shifts that are slowly occurring in real time. Our nation is evolving slowly to become a predominantly multi-racial society, changing at the pace of grade school children as they grow to maturity. This mural literally reflects that shift.

Although one wouldn’t know it from the purple skin-tones, all of the figures align with this generational arc; at one end, the grandparents generation represented 75% caucasian models and the Grade-schoolers represented over 50% multi-racial models.  

“I absolutely adore working with kids,” said one artist. “They don’t have the stifling inhibitions that adults do when it comes to art. Kids love to experiment with colors, shapes, and lines without a care in the world for how it will turn out. This experimental attitude gives them the freedom to let their minds wander and decide what they think of a drawing, as opposed to worrying about what others might think.” 

One of the artists of “Holding up Olympia” is Quartz, age three-and-a-half at the time, whose mother Jackie did most of the actual painting. When asked what she liked most about it, Quartz quickly said, “I have rainbow hair!” The mural also captures her most prized possession, “my magic marble, it’s green and sparkly!” That marble is now lost in the childhood wake of misplaced treasures.

However, the image of Quartz with her marble will remain on this wall as footnote of her personal history and a moment in time when kids and families spent their September weekends painting themselves. In one measure, the result was a lively mural, in another it was a lesson about art, community and life.

Taking a cue from Confucius, if our vision for downtown is one year, we should teach our children not to litter. If our vision is 10 years, we should show them how to buy local and support local businesses. If our vision is 100 years, we should engage them in painting a mural.

“Holding up Olympia” can be found in downtown Olympia at the corner of Fouth Ave E and Water Street E, near Childhood’s End Gallery.

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