Monday, May 26, 2014

The Many Murals of Estacada

For some 20,000 years, humankind has been attracted to the bare wall as a canvas for artistic expression. From the caves of Lascaux in southwestern France where primitive men drew the animals of their known world to the satirical stencilings of British graffiti artist, Banksey, murals have been a popular art form and means of communication. They are considered one of the oldest artistic endeavors and even here, in the Pacific Northwest, native tribes along the Columbia River left art work in the form of petroglyphs that are still visible today after hundreds of years.
The outdoor wall mural has been chosen by a number of small Northwest towns as a strategy for economic development and beautification with Chemainus, British Columbia, as the most noted example. A dying logging community on Vancouver Island, it transformed itself into a huge outdoor art gallery drawing tourists from around the world.  Taking a cue from its northern neighbor, the town of Vale in Eastern Oregon painted 30 empty walls with tales from the Oregon Trail as a way to attract travelers along Interstate 84. Toppenish, Wash., Cottage Grove, Silverton, Springfield, and The Dalles have all dressed up their towns with colorful murals.

A good example closer to Portland, is the town of Estacada, about 35 miles southeast along the banks of the Clackamas River, at the edge of Mt. Hood National Forest. Rather young by Oregon standards, the community was founded in 1905 after a rail line was built to support construction of a series of hydroelectric dams upstream along the Clackamas River. The railroad also serviced a thriving logging and milling industry and the owners of the line (Oregon Water Power and Railway Company) built a grand hotel and park to lure Portland tourists. On weekends, city dwellers rode the electric streetcar out to Estacada or further along the route to Cazadero for an enjoyable day of picnics, fishing, and chicken dinners at the Hotel Estacada.

Over time, the dams were completed, the logging industry faded, the hotel burned down, and the town began to fade as the local economy stagnated. In 1992, several local, professional artists joined together to create the Artback Artists’ Cooperative, and painted the first mural in Estacada. It was so well received by the community that a tradition was born of painting a new mural on the fourth weekend in July during the city’s Summer Celebration. This mural-in-a-weekend program has created a total of 18 murals scattered about town. Because sun and exposure to weather elements have faded many of the older murals, the artists have switched to an alternating program of restoring a mural one year and creating a new one the next year.

Most of the murals celebrate some aspect of the area’s history and recreational opportunities including Native American life, logging, the Barlow Road, train travel, fishing, quilting, and mushroom foraging. On the wall of Wong’s King Chinese restaurant is a colorful mural dedicated to a surprising, local crop called ginseng. In the early 1900s, this medicinal herb was an important element in the local economy, and was shipped to China where it is highly revered for its restorative properties. But, global events including the Depression, World War II, and the rise of Communism in China brought an end to the industry.

To visit the murals, pick up a Walking Tour map available at the Chamber of Commerce office in City Hall on Main Street. Most of murals are located in a compact area of about six city blocks and their color and size make them easy to spot. This year’s Summer Celebration falls on the weekend of July 26 and 27 and provides an opportunity to view a mural in the making. The theme of the 2014 mural is the Hamatsa dance of the Kwakwaka’waka people of Vancouver Island, B.C. and will complete a trilogy of native-themed murals designed by John Freese on the walls of the Harvest Market on Broadway.

In addition to the mural-in-a-weekend project, the festival includes music, arts and crafts, food and entertainment. Unfortunately, the trolley no longer brings city dwellers out to Estacada; you’ll have to drive.

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