It all started when one of Vancouver Watersheds Alliance’s staff, Nancy Newland, came across photos of storm drain murals while looking for ways to explain what storm drains are to a group of kids. Vancouver Watersheds Alliance is an environmental nonprofit with a focus on educating and engaging community members to be active stewards of the Vancouver, Washington, area’s natural legacy, with a focus on creeks, lakes and other water bodies. We educate children and adults, giving them hands-on opportunities to participate in the restoration and protection of waterways. I loved the idea of storm drain murals and how they could fit into our work, and so did the kids we showed them to.
Part of my vision for Vancouver Watersheds Alliance is to focus on the more urban storm water issues. We work on restoring creeks through riparian work on public and private lands, but there has been a gap: direct storm water education. We found when doing outreach that most kids did not know what a storm drain was, and that most adults did not realize that the storm drains in Vancouver flow primarily into Burnt Bridge Creek and the Columbia River. This was something I wanted to change.
So the question became how?
We started off going to a neighborhood association to see if they were interested in a storm drain mural pilot project through our micro-grant program that distributes $22,500 in small neighborhood grants. This project would fit within the guidelines of the grant program perfectly, and the neighborhood was excited and willing.
Then came the moment when an idea runs into reality. In this case, it was permitting and regulation requirements. We worked with the neighborhood association for a long time; they were committed, but we kept running into road blocks and finally a point where they decided to wait. Still, I was determined to do the project somewhere, somehow.
I needed to think more outside the box. I tend to dream up projects that are huge, and I often get a look from people like, “How in the world will you make this happen?” Those who have worked with me for a while just smile and say, “Ok, here we go,” and tell me that if anyone can make it happen, I can.
All these people, including the artists, now know that the water on the street where the paintings are flows straight into the Columbia River without any filters.
So I went big, and decided to attempt 37 murals in downtown Vancouver on Main Street between 23rd Street and Sixth Street. I was a bit nervous but decided just to dive in and go for it. Now to set the stage, I have never been involved in painting street murals. I did work on a mural on the side of a building once (which was also a personal project I coordinated as a gift to a friend who was dying from cancer and his family), but this was completely different. This was for work, and I was representing Vancouver Watersheds Alliance. So it had better turn out good, right?
I love collaboratives and never-before-done projects, and this was certainly going to be one. I approached three neighborhood associations adjacent to Main Street, two downtown business associations, and the Clark County Mural Society to see if they were interested in a partnership for the project. They were all on board almost immediately.
I put out a media call for volunteer artists. Many people told me we would not find enough artists, but in the end, we had more than 40 submissions to paint 37 murals. Over the next few months or so, the real work began. I decided to have all of the artists paint on one day in September. The mural team, including representatives from each organization, planned a large-scale painting extravaganza. Grant funds from our neighborhood grant program were awarded to the three neighborhood associations we contacted so the supplies and expenses for the project were covered.
The painting event was all lined up. We had the artists, and volunteers were set up to run the event. And then the obsessive weather watch started. I could not believe that it had been beautiful and sunny, and that it looked like the weather was going to be dry and warm for every day except the day we wanted to paint. We ended up postponing the event and rescheduling with all the artists several times. We were getting later into the fall, and realized we had better get people painting whenever they could. So, over a two-week period, the artists who could painted on the days they could. It was hectic and crazy to say the least, but in the end, we all made it happen, and 18 murals were painted on Main Street by the second week in October.
The painting days were incredible! Everyone who walked by stopped and asked the artists what they were doing, complimented them on their art, and left smiling. All these people, including the artists, now know that the water on the street where the paintings are flows straight into the Columbia River without any filters. This is what the project is all about: education and community building through art and volunteerism.
I loved seeing people stop their normal, sometimes mindless walking to stop and have conversations with people they did not know. It was a beautiful thing to see, and it filled my heart with joy for the project.
As the days of painting progressed, the murals became an item of conversation around town. People told me they were having fun looking for new ones popping up. Kids would walk by and say things like, “Oh, I saw the turtle one and the fish one, too!” and “Mom, can we look for more?” It inspired more walking and more conscious paying attention to one’s surroundings.
I loved talking with the artists, hearing their stories and getting to know them. None had painted a street mural, and only one had painted a large-scale outdoor mural. This was a first-time art project for everyone, but they did not let that stop them. They dove into figuring out the intricacies of painting on rough concrete, the road, through dirt, with cars driving by and people stopping to watch them in action. I think all the artists stretched out of their comfort zones, and in a very public way. With the media coverage and all the bystanders, they were truly on a stage.
Some artists painted by themselves and some in teams. A few that stood out to me:
- A 15-year-old who designed the mural and was assisted on painting day by her parents and brother
- Two childhood friends, both artists, who had never worked on a project together at this level. They had such a great time that they talked about doing more projects like this one together.
- A mother and daughter team
- Two friends who met through the Vancouver Rocks project
- An artist who, afterward, was offered a job painting a mural at a school
- An artist who told me it was the most fun art project she had ever done
I invite everyone to go and look at the storm drain murals. Please post and share the photos through your social media channels and organizations. The more people who see the art, the more people will learn about the importance of “Drains to River” -- and the more people will get to enjoy beautiful art.
We will begin the second round of mural painting once the weather gets a bit warmer and drier. The artists who could not paint last round are ready to go when the time is right. If we have any space for new artist submissions we will post on our Facebook page and website.
Next steps: After the success of this project, I am ready to do more. I would like to see murals throughout the entire Vancouver area. As we all know, this means finding funding. I will be on the search for grants and sponsorships to install more murals. Please stay tuned!
Please also check out the Vancouver Watersheds Alliance website. We will have photos of all the murals, along with artist bios, very soon.