By Katie Doolittle
The corner of State Ave and Capitol Way just might be the only intersection on Earth where I find myself actually hoping for a red light. Stopping there gives me a chance to admire the mural. If you’ve ever visited downtown Olympia you know the one I’m talking about: a tree spread over four thousand square feet, its glorious profusion of color a pleasing contrast to the adjacent gravel parking lot.
The roots of that tree stretch back to 2006, when Susan Greene first travelled to Olympia. Greene is an artist and one of the founding members of Art Forces (known back then as Break the Silence Media and Art Project). She came here to visit peace activist Rachel Corrie’s home town, and to meet with members of the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice about a potential collaborative project.
Thus was the Olympia Rafah Solidarity Mural Project (ORSMP) initiated.
To understand the mural, you need a bit of background. In 2003, 23-year-old Olympia native Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting the demolition of a Palestinian home. Rafah, incidentally, is where she died. In response, her parents founded a nonprofit that “encourages and supports grassroots efforts in pursuit of human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice.” This nonprofit co-produced the mural with Art Forces.
Corrie’s interest in Palestine provided a guiding vision for the mural. As activist Elizabeth Moore explains, ORSMP sought to bring together multiple, diverse contributors. The commonality would be that all participating organizations “found the struggle for justice in Palestine tied to their [own struggle or mission].” ORSMP spent three years “scouting locations and doing the outreach to connect with other groups.”
Moore got involved with the project in 2010, which is the same year the actual art installation began to take shape. Olympia residents may recall the mural in its earlier stages. For quite some time it was a two-dimensional painting of a tree, awesome in scale with compellingly twisted roots and branches. It’s an olive tree, Moore tells me. I assume this references the olive branch of peace.
And yes, the metaphor–based on ancient Greek and Roman symbolism–is certainly apt. But there’s more to it than that. Here again, the mural harks back to Corrie’s particular passion. “The olive tree is an iconic symbol of Palestinian liberation,” Moore explains.
Intriguingly, the olive tree mural in Olympia has taken on its own symbolism. Spend some time looking at the beautiful leaf images affixed to the tree. These were contributed by over 150 local, national, and international participants. What ultimately emerges from their combined efforts is a message that transcends political particulars. When I ask Moore to describe the main theme of the mural, she sums it up nicely by referencing an Audre Lorde quote: “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
ORSMP’s thorough website supports the message of interconnectivity. Here, interested readers can find close-up images of each component of the art installation. Each image links to further information about the group or person who created that particular component.
Efforts to improve interactivity are ongoing. ORSMP hopes to put in a reflection bench near the downtown Olympia mural. They’d also like to install high-powered binoculars for detailed viewing of the highest leaves.
Other project additions are afoot in the virtual world. “Call the Wall” is a new section of the website which assigns each component of the mural an extension number. Call 360-252-9779 and dial a specific extension to hear more details about that aspect of the mural.
To make this new audio presentation as dynamic and relevant as possible, ORSMP is recording interviews with all of the original contributors. “The audio project turned out to be a much bigger project than originally anticipated,” Moore says. Contacting participants “four years after the fact” can be difficult, given the fluidity and turnover inherent in activist organizations.
Still, Moore finds the work worthwhile. Not only does it offer perspective on each aspect of the mural, but it’s also a chance to reconnect–to reestablish relationships and find out how the various groups have evolved since the mural’s completion in 2010.
Currently, Moore serves as Project Coordinator for both ORSMP and the Rachel Corrie Foundation. As such, she has a special appreciation for the project’s continued significance. Moore notes, “It’s not just a stagnant piece of art. It’s a relevant conversation starter.” She’s proud of the fact that the gravel lot near the mural has become a community space used in a variety of ways by a multitude of artists, activists, and students. Says Moore, “It continues to be a touchstone for groups.”
ORSMP was co-produced by Break the Silence Mural and Arts Project (now Art Forces) and the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice. It was co-sponsored by the Middle East Children’s Alliance, the International Trauma Treatment Program, and the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.
To learn more, visit the ORSMP website or email email@example.com. You can see the mural at the corner of State and Capital in downtown Olympia.
All photos courtesy Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project.