A Long Time Ago, I Painted Some Murals

I can’t remember how it started but in high school, I spent two summers painting murals in the town I grew up in. The downtown, a couple-block-long strip of half-empty shops when I lived there, was home to a place called “Mural Park.” It was an empty lot created when fire gutted whatever building used to be there. It was a couple of benches and some plants, a totem pole nominally about the local, long-dead, timber industry, and murals that were about 25 years old. When I was about fifteen a painter decided it was time to redo the murals and enlisted local teens to help her. She was funded by the local Optimist’s club, a group that I still can’t tell apart from Rotary. Somehow, I got involved.

Photograph of a person with long hair walking through the open gravel area of a tiny park, a hint of murals on either side, filled with bushes and a faded wooden totem pole in the center

To say I was an aimless teen sort of misses the mark but then, as now, I did sort of simple-mindedly and cheerfully go forward with the things I liked to do without any larger goals. I legit do not remember how I ended up on the mural painting team. I think I was just generally known as “arty” and okay at painting, a decent enough candidate for the job. What had to have happened was that one of the sainted teachers who tried to keep me from wandering off academic cliffs pointed my little idiot head in the right direction and off I went. It’s not like I worked since I wasn’t allowed to have a job, and volunteer work was the sort of thing you wanted to show if you were the first person in your family to go to college. Plus I liked painting. 

There were three walls in Mural Park, in a logical sort of shape outlining the business that used to be there. The back wall we weren’t touching, it was to be sealed so the faded, 1970s-era mural of loggers could be preserved as a sort of testament of time. The intent was that we would do the first wall one summer and then a fresh group of kids would do the other wall the next year. The town desperately wanted to remain relevant, it’d stopped being a timber town before my memory and was still decades off from leveraging its Walmart and placement off the highway into a transformation to the kind of place split harshly between a bedroom community and the townies who ran the service industries.

I can’t remember the other two kids very well. One girl I know was kind of a flake because it is sweaty, boring business to paint murals and my memory is supported by the copies of our timesheets I for some reason still have that show she worked maybe a fourth of what the rest of us did. The other girl I wanted to be friends with but she was on a different life path that involved owning a beautiful old beater of a car and going to raves. She was the first person I knew who didn’t shave her legs and I desperately wanted that freedom. She also had a bright orange fur skirt and I skipped a class once with her when we ended up on the same outdoor trip. I will never find her again because when women marry they change their names and even she must have fallen in line with that convention.

A hand with long nails holding a newspaper clipping of three teens showing off certificates of achievement. In the background are more newspaper clippings and photos of the mural in progress.

Painting murals was something I was made to do. I could and would happily sit for hours, copying the squares off of a gridded guide onto a wall too textured to easily paint. I learned landscape painting techniques that were basically Bob Ross methods writ large, slapping happy trees and rocks across a wall that was something like 20×100 feet. Whether I’m building spreadsheets or running catering, the constant in my life has always been that I love a straightforward task of moderate skill that I can just doggedly pursue to completion. Mural painting is that, with a bonus of getting to climb off the scaffolding sometimes and see how everything falls together in a way that’s unclear when your nose is right up in it. Not to be too fancy about it but that’s a luxury difficult to come by in any other task.

Again, this was over twenty years ago, so I don’t know why or exactly how, but the next year it was just the head painter, Joy, and me, as far as I remember. Most likely it was because I didn’t have anything else going on and everyone else did.

The corner of a mural wall, with an actual tree and shrub in front of a painted woodland mural showing a skunk. Two signatures in the corner read "Joy Williamson, Brenna Zedan, 1999."

Here’s something about Joy. She was primarily a porcelain artist. She painted realistic-enough scenes on porcelain, things like flowers and landscapes. Once she painted some eagle or something on a vase and it was given to someone important in Russia by a diplomat or something. She had a picture of the ceremonial hand-off in her house.

She also took vision baths where she dreamt up some of the designs for a pack of oracle cards. She was the first totally vibe-and-energy based belief system person I ever encountered and I ended up with two VHS tapes from her that are just sermons about energy over really wild visuals that are a mix of animation styles. She smoked thin black cigarettes and bleached her greying hair so it would have more body to it. “It raises the scales on the hair shaft, so it’s thicker” she explained one day as we took a break from painting.

I went to Joy’s house a lot. The second year of mural painting I was involved in the preliminary process. The original mock-up of the final wall painted on a piece of foam core in her studio, the individual studies of trees and rocks and techniques. I learned she was one of those people who mixed her colours completely before adding them to the painting, and she kept marvelling over how I just let them mix in the process of painting, “like impressionism!” I knew just enough art history to be flattered and know she was kind of wrong.

A pile of photographs on top of an photocopied time sheet. The photographs show the progress of the mock-up for a mural and of a person in a white bucket hat and painter clothes squatting on the ground to paint

The relationship was something like journeyman/apprentice, except as an adult I know Joy wasn’t anything like a journeyman mural painter. But she did have experience painting and knew how to manage a project and I was grateful to learn. When the second mural was done I ended up getting drafted by her to manage some award program she ran for the Optimist Club. 

I would take my bike from where I stashed it at a friend’s house and go do things on the computer for her like make certificates and write letters and update tables. I got school credit for it as an independent class, one of several ways my high school dealing with a generation of students they were trying to placate until graduation. A few years after I left, the administration ended up implementing the education reform we’d protested against anyway. But until then I spent the majority of my last chunk of high school in weird, self-guided courses.

The important thing was, twice during all this, I got a $200 “honorarium” from the Optimist Club. Somewhere in my old high school notes, I saw that the first time I spent part of it paying my way to state theatre trips and lent the rest to my dad. The second time I opened a bank account with it and paid the first fees for the college that accepted me. It was the only college I’d applied to since they waived their application fee.

A lot of years later, my sister got me to come visit before the park was demolished to build a new, modern park space that fit the city’s updated image. She told me how the park had been a touchstone for a bunch of kids in the area, kids she’d grown up with who all still mostly lived in town. They’d apparently been vocal about the demolition of the old murals and indignant that no attempt to find the artists and invite them back had been made.

“It’s not like you’re hard to find.” My sister shrugged, scowling.

A faded mural of a woodland scene, the ground in front of it is dirt, torn up from pulling out plants. In the corner of the photo is an orange-and-white striped barricade

It was weird. I’d forgotten about painting the murals. I remembered vaguely how I had thought, at an excited 17, that I’d come back in 20 years and get a new group of teens to paint the walls. The idea I’d be able to leave the town and never look back hadn’t been a possibility even worth considering. Everyone came back, or at least stayed nearby. That work I’d done as a teen had been a part of a different generation’s lives and held more meaning to them than it ever did to me was weird and strange and nice. 

It’s nice that I learned how to paint landscapes and be an administrative assistant for Joy. It’s skills that I leveraged in college to work as an assistant to a professor and that’s something I used to slowly chip my way out of the service industry and into my first pure office job by my mid-30s. It’s nice that the $200 I got a couple of times for what these old timesheets say is hundreds of hours of work gave me a way to get out and never look back.

But mostly it’s nice that something I did meant something to other people, even if my nose was too close to the work to see it at the time.

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