Murals in Ellensburg

David Snyder, Staff Reporter

They’re painted in the alleyways, on the rooftops and atop the sides of age-old brick buildings. Ellensburg’s collection of public murals started as far back as the 1880s and continues to grow today.

According to Kittitas County Historical Museum Director Saide Thayer, a lot of Ellensburg’s history with murals is rooted in advertising. Hand-painted signage that serves as decoration today was once intended to point folks to the nearest clothing store or horse carriage seller.

Another wave of murals that have stuck around through the years is those reflecting rodeo culture. Thayer said that following the formal establishment of the Ellensburg Rodeo in 1923, the community adopted the rodeo theme as a hallmark.

“A lot of the [murals Ellensburg] wants to preserve are those echoes of the past,” Thayer said. “To preserve them today reflects back on a historic culture and decoration we don’t see today.”

According to Thayer, some of these murals have been restored over time, while others have faded to ghostly versions of what they once were, such as the mural for Stetson Hats on the side of the Kleinberg Building.

In 2016, the city established new guidelines for mural creation and preservation in the historic downtown district. Thayer said the guidelines made downtown building owners responsible for maintaining the murals, but some are opting not to, allowing them to wear away.

Ellensburg Arts Commission member Monica Miller said she doesn’t believe the city is trying to maintain a specific aesthetic with its public art. According to Miller, part of the Arts Commission’s job is to reflect the diversity of the community, especially when it comes to new murals.

“I’ve always found that the community is open to the voices of the people that are living here,” Miller said. “And I would hope that over time, the collection [of murals] that the city is building would reflect that.”

Lynne McCowin

When it comes to culturally significant Ellensburg muralists, Thayer said it’s hard to point out names because of how far some of the images date back, but the first name that came to her mind was Lynne McCowin.

Since the mid-1980s, McCowin has been responsible for the restoration and replication of many murals that make up downtown Ellensburg today, such as the trio of classic ads painted on the Horseshoe Tavern.

Although, according to McCowin, her work in local art goes well beyond that.

“I think that my work has played a large part in bringing downtown Ellensburg color and life,” McCowin said. “[But] my range is not limited to just fixing up old signs.”

McCowin said that, among other things, she has made thousands of paintings and illustrations, she’s produced around a half-dozen films for television and now she’s even working on a series of clothing based on New Guinean tribes.

“[My legacy] remains to be seen,” McCowin said. “I would like to leave an appreciation of the different eras that we have been going through and are headed toward … my work is an ongoing process, and I have future pieces arranged.”

Possibly her most visible work in Ellensburg so far is the Phoenix mural she painted on the Davidson Building downtown.

Intended to pay homage to Ellensburg’s rebirth from the Great Fire of 1889, McCowin’s Phoenix replaced a different Phoenix mural that was painted in the 1970s by Erik Maakestad.  

According to McCowin, the original had a Victorian-era look. For the look of her Phoenix, she said she used a retro lithographic print style.

McCowin said that rather than complimenting the common rodeo-styled theme associated with Ellensburg, the Phoenix was made to compliment the theme of the Phoenix Block (the Davidson Building).

Since first painting the mural in 2005, McCowin has made a few additions to the piece, most notably in 2014 to honor the 125th anniversary of the fire.

Justin Gibbens

According to Thayer, some of the murals that have come after McCowin’s Phoenix have “a different character based on what individuals were trying to reflect through art, history, and culture.”

In the past couple of years, the city has approved some local artists’ requests to paint more murals around town that depart from rodeos and ads.

One of those artists was Justin Gibbens, who works primarily on contemporary wildlife art.

In 2017, Ellensburg City Council allowed Gibbens and his friend Will Bow to stamp their brand of color and graphic design to the walls of the Stan Bassett Youth Center.

The mural stretches around the perimeter of the building, depicting a vibrant assortment of nature-based images intrinsic to the Northwest: woodlands, rivers and wildlife along with a few urban legends like the sasquatch. The youth center kids helped Gibbens and Bow come up with ideas for the images.

Gibbens said his work on the mural made him realize that a lot can be added to a building with a fresh coat of paint.

“If you have an uninteresting wall, [and] throw some images on it, it comes alive,” Gibbens said. “It can really activate a building or space and make it so much more fun to experience.”

Last Summer, Gibbens and Bow painted another mural. This time in downtown Ellensburg on the roof of the recently opened Hotel Windrow.

The mural stretches across a portion of the hotel’s roof, incorporating a plethora of color and disproportionate shapes. According to Gibbens, the mural is supposed to be an abstract aerial view of cropland. 

The design also incorporates the logos of the murals stakeholders.

Gibbens said he thinks having more contemporary imagery around town would reflect the diverse attitudes in the community.      

 “[When] you come into a new town, and you see a mural, you see art on a wall. That’s an advertisement.” Gibbens said. “It’s saying, ‘this is who we are, this is our personality, this is our character.”

One of Gibbens’ favorite local art pieces is the Marlon Brando mural painted on the back of the Roslyn theater. Unlike that piece, which has been maintained for almost 30 years, Gibbens said he doesn’t expect his murals to have a long-lasting legacy.

He doesn’t envision his murals lasting more than 20 years, with them being on exterior surfaces that are exposed to the elements.  

“The Marlon Brando [mural is] such an iconic image, I think there’s a commitment on behalf of the [Roslyn] community to want the image to be there and to be maintained,” Gibbens said. “I don’t know if I’ve heard anyone talk in those terms about the things I’ve done yet, but hey, I suppose it could be done.”

Jason Clifton

Two years ago, Jason Clifton applied for a grant from the arts commission to paint a mural at the Ellensburg Skate Park. After a long process of acquiring permits and writing-up a proposal, Clifton was granted the ability to go forward with his mural in early January.

Clifton said his initial idea for the project was to pay homage to professional skaters from Washington state. But now, with the project set to start soon, Clifton said he’s open to other ideas.

“I made a Facebook post about the content of it … I felt like the people that inhibit the skate park should have a say in what their environment has on it,” he said.

In 1988, at eight-years-old, Clifton moved from southern California to Ellensburg and brought with him an affinity for street art. According to Clifton, his style of art is heavily inspired by skate culture.

“Skateboarding and graffiti go hand-in-hand,” Clifton said. “I grew up really poor … the culture [of street art] is really based in poverty and poor people and disenfranchised people that still want to be seen and heard.”

Clifton has made murals all over town. From the walls of local businesses to the walls of his own home. A lot of his work depicts people in a stylized form, such as his tribute to Seattle sports and pop culture icons at Club 301.  

Clifton defines himself as a portrait artist that mixes street art techniques with fine art realism. 

He said his goal is to bridge the gap in Ellensburg between gallery art and graffiti. According to Clifton, he’s curating the first regional street art show at Gallery One Visual Arts Center this summer.

“I think if people are a little more receptive to [street art] because they know that I’m not tagging on their fences at night … it can be cool,” Clifton said. “If I have one mission, it’s to change that narrative.”