I saw it when I stopped at a red light at the intersection of Lake City Way and 95th Street: an old, bearded man — was he a wizard? — staring down at the street from a sign on a telephone pole. I smiled. How weird.
Before the light turned green, I took a picture. “Fun things out in the world for no apparent reason,” I posted on Instagram. “Love those.”
An Instagramer named Ericka clued me in within minutes. “The compassion wizard!” she wrote. “Look him up :)”
So I did.
As it turns out, this quirky character is the work of none other than Ryan Henry Ward, the 37-year-old Seattle artist who’s made a name for himself with the 127 bold and whimsical murals he’s put up around the city over the last five years. But it’s like nothing he’s done before. The Compassion Wizard is small, black and white and unclaimed, missing Ward’s familiar “henry” signature. But he’s got a more central place in Ward’s artistic vision than most of his other characters. Plus, he’s everywhere. Ward put up the last of 900 wizard signs last month, and tattooed him on his right arm earlier this year.
Of course, you’d know none of this meeting the bearded character’s wise, confident gaze on a street corner, and that’s part of the point. When everything’s tracked and mapped and scheduled, it’s nice to collide with a little magic.
And even better when you learn that magic has a pretty cool message.
The Compassion Wizard means something to Ward. A lot, actually. But since he began installing the signs last year, Ward hasn’t been in a rush to explain them. He sort of let it go into the world, implicitly trusting that someone would notice it, then someone else, and someone else, and that through the connections actual and virtual it would spark a casual, collaborative kind of discovery.
That’s what’s possible. And ever since Ward put up the first wizards along with a simple Facebook page about a year ago, it’s exactly what’s happened.
The first thing I wanted from Ward when we met under his canvases at Fremont’s Short Stop Coffee this week was an explanation. I’d found random Flickr photos of the wizard, a YouTube video asking what he’s all about and the Google map where people are plotting their sightings.
On the Facebook page, posts about love and imagination accompany images of Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. But what does a wizard have to do with compassion?
Ward put it to me this way. His art, with its mermaids, monsters and big, colorful animals, reflects the magical world he believes kids all live in. He calls it the Golden Realm.
As we grow, we let go of our sense that all things are possible so we can live in a world where it seems a lot of things are not. On a trip to India in 2000, Ward realized that it’s hard to help a sick man you see on the side of the street if you think that’s just the way things are.
“Compassion is born from the imagination,” he explained. “To have the desire to be compassionate, you have to imagine a world that’s better than the one you live in.”
If the creatures in Ward’s murals are characters in this world, the Compassion Wizard is its gatekeeper.
Ward considers himself a children’s artist in a big sense. His motivation, he said, is to make art that inspires or keeps people’s innocence.
He guesses that about 35 percent of the signs he’s put up on telephone poles from here to Bellingham and beyond are still up. Some disappear soon after he posts them. Others linger then leave. Ward is OK with that. He didn’t do it for recognition, and he knew he’d have no control. He wanted to see how far he could take one image, and where it could go from there.
The wizards are, as he put it, a gift to the city.
Cops approached Ward a few times as he hauled a ladder out of his former painted car onto a telephone pole. A cop on Capitol Hill once asked what he was doing. When Ward explained, the officer smiled and told him, “I wish more people would do this kind of stuff.”
So do I.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message to her on Facebook.