The Seattle Times

John Osgood, one of three artists who created a mural to put over the safety wall where the Greenwood arsons happened along Northwest 85th Street, stirs up some paint while doing finishing-up work Friday morning. Photograph by Ken Lambert | The Seattle Times

“Artists create street mural in Greenwood in aftermath of arsons”

Local artists create street mural to brighten the streetscape of Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood, hit by a string of arson fires this fall.

December 18, 2009
By Marisa Willis
Seattle Times staff reporter

Trying to heal Greenwood in the aftermath of an arson spree was not on Scott Nolte’s to-do list. As producing artistic director of the Taproot Theatre Company, he had enough to worry about.
The theater was damaged in the Oct. 23 blaze that gutted four adjacent businesses on Northwest 85th Street.

But as the arson continued to plague his North Seattle neighborhood, it became Nolte’s No. 1 priority.

Through creation of an edgy, urban-meets-contemporary- art mural, the Greenwood native wanted to put a little hope into those rattled by the fires. Friends, neighbors and nearby business owners should be made to feel safe once more, Nolte said.

And perhaps most important, he said, he wanted to see people on his street smile again.

Nolte and members of Seattle Mural Art and Bherd Studio set out to create a large street mural splashed with reds, oranges and blues. At its center? A phoenix.

On Friday, John Osgood, one of three artists leading the mural project, applied a few quick bursts of color from a green can of spray paint, as he touched up a section screaming the word “Greenwood.”

The gold and red phoenix in the center steals the show, as it rises from fierce orange and red flames. The symbolism is clear: Just as the bird refuses to succumb to the fire licking at its feathers, so do the people of Greenwood refuse to be torn down.

The mural not only tells the story of the arsons, which includes a firefighter rescuing cats from Cat City, an animal shelter, it also will remind the passer-by of neighborhood icons, such as the Greenwood Car Show and Greenwood-Phinney art walk. The swirls of scenery and narratives represent “everything uniquely Greenwood,” Osgood said.

The 89-foot-by-8-foot mural will soon be installed on a temporary wall near the intersection of Northwest 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue North, where the Eleanor Roosevelt Building stood until the Oct. 23 blaze. The building, which Taproot Theatre rented to four businesses, including Green Bean Coffee House, Szechuan Bistro, C.C. Teriyaki and Pho Tic Tac, was destroyed.
“You don’t really know loss until you’re standing in front of your building, watching it burn down,” Nolte said, remembering firefighters’ bravery and perseverance to save the theater.

Nolte said the gaping hole in the heart of Greenwood’s business district where the historic building had been since the 1910s was a grim reminder of the devastation — nearly $3 million in losses — and the sudden vulnerability inflicted on the neighborhood by arson suspect Kevin Swalwell.

Swalwell was charged with 11 counts of arson and one count of burglary after his arrest on Nov. 13 near a smoldering furniture store in Shoreline. The homeless man pleaded not guilty to all 12 counts on Dec. 1 in King County Superior Court.

“There’s so much that Greenwood has been through,” said Daytona Strong, Taproot communications manager. “This is our new phase we’re forced to embrace, but it’s empowering to move toward something good.”

Instead of getting angry their neighborhood was targeted by an arsonist, residents and business owners, want to be creative, said Osgood.
“It stinks that the arsons happened,” Osgood said matter-of-factly. “But this isn’t going to slow us down. We’re turning it into an opportunity to showcase the artistry of Greenwood.”

What could have been a temporary, graffiti-prone plywood wall covering a demolition site — another ugly eyesore — turned into an emotionally charged memorial, the brainstorm of Osgood and Nolte, and fellow artist Marty Gordon.

Once the plan took shape, Seattle Mural Arts members Zach Bohnenkamp and Kevin “Sensei23” Sullivan grabbed their paint cans and brushes. Nolte said he gave the three men complete artistic freedom.

Osgood said the mural should be completed before Christmas and hopes to have it installed before New Year’s. It will remain at the site of the demolished building for as long as it takes Taproot to decide what to do with the empty lot they originally purchased for expansion.

The main goal of creating something of beauty for Greenwood, however, has already been accomplished.

“We had 10 Greenwood businesses attacked, but we’re not down for the count,” Nolte said. “We’re back. We’re stronger and we’re supporting one another.”