When a community creates something together, they bond and become vested in their shared space. For an East Olympia neighborhood that meant having a hand in the creation of a mural. Their handprints are a focal point in the art. In a project initiated by the Eastside Neighborhood Association and funded by a city of Olympia grant, local artist Laurel Henn led the project.
The ENA is made up of a multi-block area on Olympia’s east side. The neighborhood is located between Fourth Avenue and Interstate 5 with Eastside Street as its southern boundary and Chambers Street as the northern tip. The ENA had previously completed a subarea plan with the City of Olympia that shared its improvement goals with the city, serving as a platform upon which both entities can collaborate. The city offers a yearly grant that matches up to $1,500 for an association project. The ENA study identified walkability as their neighborhood’s best feature and aimed to not only maintain it, but to grow it. Part of enhancing walkability is dealing with graffiti, and one neighbor asked if the association could help. Having a property owner with a wall to offer and a local mural artist who had previously volunteered in the neighborhood, the ENA decided to use the grant from the city to create a colorful display that adds to their walkability.
Local printmaker Laurel Henn’s name was suggested to the ENA as a good candidate for painting a neighborhood mural. “When asked to do a mural in my neighborhood,” explains Henn, “I automatically knew I wanted to do something to involve the community. I love the process of art. It’s very healing, and if I could get more people involved in the process then the art would mean more for the community. That, and my kiddo really wanted to put her handprint on a mural.”
The image that Henn chose to use for the mural was from the book theme most popular with her followers. It fit the neighbors, the pedestrians and herself perfectly. She arrived at the choice by first considering the space itself. It is a concrete wall along a sidewalk, bordered on the top by fencing and shaded by trees. She had just the painting. “As a kid,” shares Henn, “I used to go hiking around Nisqually Valley, where I grew up, finding trees to sit in all day and read books and draw pictures.” Henn’s choice for the mural was a print she had done called, “Reading Nook,” showing two kids up in a tree reading.
Getting a painting enlarged to the size of an entire wall takes delicate and strategic planning. Henn’s original piece is a relief print carved from a linoleum block. A linoleum block surface is covered in black ink and used like a stamp. After that, the dried print is hand painted. To begin the mural transformation, Henn measured the available wall space, and then transferred those measurements to a grid that she applied to the already existing piece of art. To prepare the wall, she applied a primer and base coat. Henn marked the wall for the painting’s significant grid locations, mainly the tree and its branches, and then she used chalk for the remaining lines. She painted the chalk lines over with black paint. The thick, bold lines from a block print work well for mural application. Henn posted a fantastic time-lapsed video of the mural making process to her Instagram.
When the larger image reached a certain stage, it was time to invite the neighbors to take part, and word spread through local channels. Along the bottom of the mural were flower stems, empty of flowers waiting to be painted by the neighbors. All throughout the day, people came to the wall, applied paint to the palms of their hands and pressed them to the wall. Parents with children, grandparents with grandchildren and even an expectant couple showed up to participate. Joggers and dog walkers took part. There are even a few paw prints as flowers. “I’m really happy with how it all turned out,” says Henn. “Because I kept it a really simple design, those handprints really play a big part in the whole composition.”
The finished mural of kids sitting in a tree reading, looking over a border of handprint flowers is fitting in so may ways. The property owner who volunteered the wall is a collector of books. Laren Henn, the artist, also carries a book theme throughout her work. Furthermore, the ENA participates in an ongoing book drive.
The art not only adds to the walkability of the streets but also to the personality the neighborhood emits. President and Treasurer of the ENA, Sherry Chillcut, describes the association’s area as having a little bit of everything in the way of homes and residents. The association supports activities that encourage neighborly interaction, such as block parties to attend, a winter walkabout event and holiday themed homes to view. “I think it was really meaningful for people,” says Chillcutt, “to be able to immortalize themselves by putting their handprint on the wall.”
The “Book Nook” mural is located at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Central Street on Olympia’s east side.