2022 marked the centennial anniversary of Oregon’s Arch Bridge. To mark the occasion, community organizers commissioned a mural project consisting of three distinct panels, each measuring 4×4 feet,. When connected, the panels would depict the span of the Arch Bridge. Different artists, each representing different communities connected by the bridge, would design each panel, and then the panels would be painted, “paint by number”-style, by the public at the commemorative Arch Bridge Centennial Celebration Street Fair.
I was fortunate enough to be selected as the artist representing the West Linn side of the bridge, along with Cathy Rowe of Oregon City and Brian Krehbiel for the Confederated Tribes. We each brought our own artistic styles and ideas to our panels, meeting occasionally to ensure the main attraction – the bridge span – would line up across the overall image.
As it turns out, from our selected vantage point, not much of West Linn is visible. The bridge fades into a hillside with little fanfare, quickly obscured by invasive blackberry brambles. So I opted for a more fictionalized view informed by various aspects of West Linn’s culture, past and present. The one element I knew I definitely wanted to include was the Willamette Locks, visible from the Arch Bridge but closed since 2011, that once allowed passage of large passenger and cargo ships over the Willamette Falls. The paper mill is another prominent part of the landscape, both physically and in terms of the town’s early history. Some of the other details I included were the historic MacLean House, which does indeed sit along the river, just slightly north, and the West Linn Public Library, which in many ways serves as a cultural hub of the town. I finished off my planning sketches with a couple more playful details, grounding the historic elements into the present while poking a little fun at West Linn’s sleepy reputation.
To ensure the actual painting of the mural would be manageable as a 4-hour community activity, I took a mosaic approach, tiling the final sketch into approximately 2-inch “tiles” that people could paint as many or as few of as they wanted. The tiling was relatively straightforward: I had developed my sketch in Inkscape, and was able to use one of its filters to fracture the image at the desired scale. I then projected the final image onto the mural panel, tracing the linework onto the primed surface.
Once the linework was complete, it was time to figure out which colors would go where. I figured specifying a color for every single area would be painfully tedious, both for me and for the community members doing the painting. I wanted to give participants enough guidance so that it wasn’t overly intimidating for anyone, yet enough leeway to encourage their own creativity. So, instead, I relied on the four color theorem, mixing four colors for each area, and just instructing people to try to avoid having two tiles of the same color touch. My sister and mom joined me for a pre-painting party, where we laid down some of the background colors and began filling in bits of the mosaic sections to give people a better vision of what we were creating.
And then it was time for the big event! The morning flew by, we had lots of people stopping by the table to help fill in sections of the mural, and we just barely got things wrapped up before the grand unveiling. The event was a ton of fun and overall the painting went pretty smoothly, although I did not account for how much inadvertent color-mixing would happen over the course of the day! What started out as tidily labeled pots of different shades of blue wound up as a sea of indistinguishable shades, so by the end of the day some sections looked a little less “mosaic-y” than others. But considering we had dozens of people painting – some only a few years old – and only a few hours to do everything, it turned out pretty good!
After the initial presentation of the mural to the event participants, each of us was sent home with our panels to complete any final details or clean-up work. I added the lettering to the library and paper mill, revisited the “all the colors got mixed into one” areas, and finished up with a bit of linework just to tighten up some of the details.
This project was such a blast to be a part of! Tackling the largest work I’ve ever done, toiling alone in my garage, transferring an image from a laptop screen to a 4×4’ surface, collaborating with the other artists, getting featured on the local news, painting alongside participants of all ages… it really allowed for an amazing range of experiences. And to top it all off, I continue to be in awe of how well all three panels work together as a cohesive whole. We each designed our sections and engaged the public in different ways, and yet each panel is strengthened by the other two.
The final panels were displayed at the Oregon City Library for several months and are now hanging in the foyer of the West Linn Library.