From an explosion of festivals and events to a new Arts Commission — approved unanimously by the City Council — the City of Yelm is embracing its creative side like never before.

City of Yelm Mount Rainier
One idea is to celebrate Yelm’s status as a gateway to Mount Rainier through art. Photo courtesy: City of Yelm

Council member Tracey Wood credits City Administrator Michael Grayum with instigating change. “This is the first time we’ve ever had someone come in and say, ‘Hey guys, let’s pull it together and figure out where we’re trying to go, how we’re going to get there, what tools we have available and what we need to work on,’” says Wood. “We’ve come a long way since Michael showed up.”

This summer alone the city will host the 3rd annual Jazz in the Park festival, Prairie Days, the Nisqually Valley Barbecue Rally, and a Mermaid Festival in addition to being an official stop along the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Race route. Grayum contends that such events are a group effort. “You have a mayor, staff and city council that are committed to building community. The strategy is, bring people together, see what their interests are, and empower them to contribute to the community in awesome ways,” he says. “The arts are definitely one of those assets.”

Local business owner Steve Craig approached the council with the idea for the Arts Commission during the spring of 2019. “It came to my attention over the years that there’s a wealth of talent in the greater Yelm area,” says Craig. “I contacted other cities to find out about their ordinances relative to creating arts commissions and shared the idea with the City Council. Without exception, they supported it.”

The commission will be staffed by volunteers, ideally representing a cross-section of the community. “We’re hoping they’ll bring in youth involvement, the schools, and the Nisqually Tribe among others,” says Councilmember E.J. Curry. “We’ve got a lot of people interested in art here. This is an enhancement for our community.”

City of Yelm Water Tower1
Yelm’s decommissioned water tower is now part of the state’s Historic Register. Photo courtesy: City of Yelm

In addition to helping establish the Arts Commission, Craig is one of the driving forces behind the Yelm water tower restoration project.

Drive through Yelm and you can’t miss it:  A 125-foot water tower looming over the center of town with the city’s name printed in broad letters. Now decommissioned, the tower could have been torn down or left to slowly disintegrate but instead, it’s listed on the Washington Heritage Register and will be maintained by a group of volunteers and the state Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation.

He applied to the state Historic Register in 2016 and gained $154,000 in state funding through the non-profit Save the Yelm Water Tower. The monies will be used to refurbish and maintain the structure, which will also be used as a platform for creativity.

City of Yelm Water Tower
LED light displays on the tower will change based on special events like holidays or Seahawks games. Photo credit: Steve Craig

“It’s not exactly the Space Needle, but it can be Yelm’s version of the Space Needle,” says Craig. “The art part is that we’re going to use LED lighting that will be computerized so we can have a variety of different displays depending on the occasion, such as New Year’s Eve, 4th of July or Seahawks games. I believe not only is it going to be a historic icon, it’s going to be an art piece that people will appreciate year-round.”  He credits Representative J.T. Wilcox with helping to garner the capital funding for the project.

Just a few blocks away, another artistic display is visible to anyone who walks the Yelm-Tenino Trail from its starting point near the former City Hall building. A former Yelm High School student who has become a professional graffiti artist gathered 20 of his friends to decorate the wall, which is transformed and updated on an ongoing basis. “It’s absolutely amazing to see all the different drawings back there,” says Councilmember Cody Colt. “Anyone can just walk along the trail and go see it.”

Coming soon, residents will also see a mural adorning the side of the Triad Theater in the heart of downtown, a building Craig owns. He’s currently working with an artist who does murals for Trader Joe’s to create a mock-up. If Craig has his way, more art throughout the town will reflect its historic and modern role as a gateway to Mount Rainier National Park. “There’s some incredibly rich history here that ties into art,” he says. “We’re recognized by the National Park Service as a gateway community.”

CIty of Yelm graffiti wall
Twenty regional graffiti artists contribute to the upkeep of a wall on the back side of a business bordering the Yelm-Tenino trail. Photo credit: Heidi Smith

One idea: a statue of former Yelm resident Fay Fuller, the first woman to climb Mount Rainer in 1887. Anyone who’s been to the Henry M. Jackson Visitors Center at Paradise within the park has seen her photo, a woman wearing a heavy woolen dress, climbing gear, and a small hat jauntily perched atop her determined face. “There are very few statues of women in the United States,” says Craig. “They’re virtually all men. I think Fay Fuller would be an excellent candidate for a statue.”

Yelm may not become the next Taos overnight, but between the water tower, mural, graffiti wall and potential statues, downtown is about to get noticeably more picturesque.

For more information, visit the City of Yelm website.

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