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Slideshow: Bridging Wilsonville Through Art

Beauty and the Bridge

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If you drive under the I-5 overpass at Wilsonville Road, don’t expect the typical dark belly of a freeway. Look south, and you’ll glimpse the early stages of the long-awaited Beauty and the Bridge mural as setters work to install its 7,200 tiles. This artwork features hand-painted flora and fauna native to the North Willamette Valley. While cohesive enough to appear as the work of one artist, it’s the collaborative result of over 1,000 Wilsonville School District students.

In addition to the underpass art, there will be raised pathways on both sides of the road, framed by student-designed custom railings. The placement of the mural is part of a greater effort by the Wilsonville City Council to encourage more bike and walking traffic along Wilsonville Road by creating an attractive space for users.  The Beauty and the Bridge is scheduled for completion later this summer.

While the school year wrapped up for the Wilsonville School District, art students worked under a tight deadline to prepare the final tiles for their permanent home. Frantic? Not at all. “We all help out. No one’s really ‘in charge.’ We all figure out what we need to do and everybody takes a part,” said junior Rachel Roll.

Although students were given artistic direction, coordinators encouraged the young artists to explore their art-making aesthetics both personally and collaboratively. “You have to learn how to imitate all kinds of different styles and work towards a common goal,” said senior Brandy Fish.

The Beauty and the Bridge project under construction at the I-5 Wilsonville Road exit in Wilsonville, OR.

Rose Hansen / OPB

Students completed tasks according to their ages. Elementary school students were in charge of the landscape and small animals, middle school students painted a giant oak tree, and high school students worked on large “focal point” animals. They researched, sketched and painted tiles, then glazed and fired them in kilns. The process makes the artwork — grasses, flowers, foxes, elk, small fish — pop with a cheerful burst of color that even the grayest Oregon sky can’t darken.

“Somebody’s painterly style, somebody’s way of blending colors, you’re going to see that voice come through in each and every one,” said Wilsonville High School art teacher Christopher Shotola-Hardt. “But when you’re down there under the bridge, you look and you will not see any abrupt edges. You cannot tell that this was done at different times by different kids at different locations. They nailed it.”

Part of the mural’s seamlessness is thanks to a small group of 22 Wilsonville High School students fondly dubbed “Special Ops,” whose duty was to take individual segments of the mural and blur them together. 

The project’s vast collaborative nature was often the source of unexpected friendships for students involved. “I think it’s like, because we’re always around each other all the time in the morning and you bond from that. We’ll turn on the radio and paint together and we laugh and it’s fun,” junior Sydney Ito explained.

Project coordinators hope that the sense of community students forged from creating the mural will spread throughout Wilsonville. To the creators, beautifying the bridge isn’t just an aesthetic project, and installing a walk/bike path isn’t a mere physical convenience. “This is a great way to bring the whole community together,” said Boones Ferry Artist-in-Residence Joan Carlson. “The whole idea is we’re trying to bridge Wilsonville.”

Project coordinators hope that, at the very least, residents will park at a nearby Fred Meyer and walk through the underpass to admire the work of the students.

“[It] connects the two sides of Wilsonville, which the freeway has chopped in half for so long,’ said Carlson.

Walking the length of the mural allows visitors to see little jokes and personal stamps that drivers would otherwise miss. While the mural itself isn’t necessarily a storyboard, it contains what Wilsonville High School art teacher Christopher Shotola-Hardt calls “unintended narratives.” For example, certain animals, such as a beaver and a duck, have been placed next to one another to both poke fun and honor the state’s university rivalries.

WHS sophomore Samantha Holman adds a final coat of paint to the surrounding landscape.

Rose Hansen / OPB

But that humor might only be noticed if people do what the mural is intended to do: encourage community members to actually use it.

At the very least, the students themselves recognize how their hand in the mural has tied them to Wilsonville for years to come. “After I leave, I’ll come back and it’ll be really exciting to see when I drive down I-5,” said Fish.

Project coordinators echo these same sentiments. “Part of the fun is these kids are going to come back and tell their kids, ‘Hey, I painted this turtle,” said Carlson.

And though the students recognize that the mural is a piece of public art owned by the community, Shotola-Hardt believes they will always feel responsible for it, and that’s good.

“Each student sees their animal. They think, ‘That’s my elk. It’s Megan’s elk. Not anybody else’s.’ So there’s this great ownership,” he explained.

That sense of ownership protects the mural from one of its greatest perceived threats: graffiti. The city performed multiple tests to “destroy” the mural. Short of slamming into it with a car, the tiles are very durable, and the school is making a “repair” log just in case anything needs to be tended to in the future. But project coordinators report little concern for defacement due to the vast number of individuals invested in it.

“If you’ve worked on this project, you’re not going to destroy it and you know your friends aren’t going to do that, too,” said Artist-in-Residence Maggie Englund.

Joan Carlson claimed that students filled them in on a kind of ‘unwritten code’: “Taggers don’t tag other people’s artwork.”

Back in the Wilsonville classrooms, students are busily painting and sanding smooth the edges of the final tiles. To be so near completion, and oh-so close to summer, lends an air of excitement to everyone involved.  As Brandy Fish put it, “Oh look! It’s coming up! It’s going to be so cool! Like, the coolest project in Oregon!”