WSU artists paint the town in array of colors

Two people stand atop a lift in front of a mural on the side of a building.
Fine arts faculty member Joe Hedges and MFA student Sarah Barnett atop a lift take a break from painting a still life on the side of Hotel McCoy in downtown Pullman (photo by Joe Hedges).

Vivid displays of color, shape, and beauty are popping up across Pullman, thanks largely to the talents of a group of muralists at Washington State University. 

Students and faculty in the fine arts department have worked in recent months with other artists in the community to create a vibrant bouquet of public art on walls of buildings at the center of town and at the Palouse Discovery Science Center on Nelson Court. Six more murals adorn the playgrounds at two local elementary schools.

From still life realism to geometric designs, the painted walls are more than mere eye candy—they’re also teaching and learning tools for the artists and viewers, said muralist Joe Hedges, WSU associate professor of painting/intermedia and a strong advocate for art in public places. 

MFA student Sarah Barnett, graphic designer Jeimei Lin and fine arts faculty member Joe Hedges paint one of Lin’s original designs at Hotel McCoy in downtown Pullman.

“Public art is vital to a community. It makes a place more interesting—more colorful in many ways—and it sparks conversations between neighbors,” he said. “Projects tend to connect business owners and community stakeholders with people and ideas they may not otherwise encounter. The value is as much in the conversations and coalition building that happens behind the scenes as it is in the final result.”

Murals in particular can boost local economies by turning blank walls into destinations to experience art and culture, Hedges said. They also enable multiple artists to collaborate and explore creative ideas at scales larger than typical studios allow.

Hedges’s handiwork is visible on three of the five new murals downtown and on the playground walls, and his fingerprints are on the rest as a mentor and cofounder of the nonprofit Pullman Arts Foundation with his wife, Jiemei Lin, a graphic designer in the College of Education.

This summer, the couple helped PAF raise enough funds to pay several of the muralists and laborers for their work priming, patching and painting the walls of three local businesses and documenting the process. 

For master of fine arts student Sarah Barnett, working on four murals downtown and the PDSC exterior provided valuable experience in project management, including preparing professional proposals and budgets. She also gained practical skills, like operating and painting from atop a hydraulic scissor lift.    

MFA student Sarah Barnett with the butterfly she helped paint as part of a still life mural at Hotel McCoy in downtown Pullman (photo by Joe Hedges).

“Working on these projects is incredibly fun and rewarding, knowing that the artwork is providing beauty and important messages to the community,” Barnett said. “It also benefits my own artistic practice in several ways.”

With Lin, Hedges and WSU alumni Abiola Adekanbi and Mohamed Ismail, she helped create PAF’s inaugural project: a vibrant downtown mural featuring the words “Pullman, WA You Are Welcome Here, End Racism Now, Black Lives Matter” designed by Lin. For her next project, Barnett worked with Hedges to enlarge and recreate a detail from a small oil painting by 17th-century artist Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder. It is an elegant rendering of flowers and a butterfly against a black background on the north side of Hotel McCoy, formerly State Inn, on southeast Paradise Street.

Barnett also assisted in painting one of Lin’s eye-popping geometric designs on another of the hotel’s walls. She is now completing a solo mural project on the hotel’s west side depicting a young woman’s wonder while walking through a lush forest in the rain.

Earlier this year, Barnett collaborated with fellow MFA students Lee Sekaquaptewa and Shanda Stinebaugh to transform PDSC’s gray walls into a boldly colored scene depicting flowing water, rolling hills and an array of stylized animals, including salmon, birds and even microscopic organisms.

“The exciting new look really is a game-changer,” said the center’s director Meri Joswiak. “Now, when children and guests arrive, they know exactly where they are and what to do: imagine, create, explore and discover!”

The mural was designed by Sekaquaptewa, a multi-tribal Native American (Yakama, Navajo and Hopi), drawing from his own heritage as well as pop culture and dream-inspired imagery, to honor the history of the Palouse as Native land and to celebrate water as a life-giving force.

MFA student Sekaquaptewa speaks during the dedication of the mural he designed and helped paint on the exterior of Palouse Discovery Science Center in Pullman.

“The bold colors and imagery immediately awaken a sense of curiosity and tell a story about our precious relationship to the environment,” Joswiak said. “The artwork invites you to interact with the elements and observe how they change when you move around. I mean, when do you ever get to stand under a six-foot-tall microorganism?”

The sheer size of murals contributes to their appeal for most viewers, especially children, Hedges said. “I am always heartened to see a young kid awed, standing in front of a big expanse of color or a rendering of a fish or bird. It’s not like being in front of a screen—seeing a painting at such a large scale can be a whole-body experience.”

He and his artistic collaborators look forward to the possibility of additional mural projects downtown this coming summer.

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