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The Seattle Sketcher

An illustrated journal of life in the Puget Sound region by Times artist Gabriel Campanario.

January 17, 2015 at 1:08 AM

Artist stands tall as murals survive

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Sketched, Dec. 2, 2014

Andrew Morrison started his “Great Walls of Indian Heritage” in 2001 to give students at Indian Heritage School “something to look at and feel proud of.” This painting shows a member of the Blackfeet Indian tribe he meet at a gathering in British Columbia.

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It wasn’t until I stood in front of Native American artist Andrew Morrison’s murals on a cold December morning that I really grasped how powerful — and valuable — they are.

Morrison’s towering paintings on the Wilson-Pacific School campus in North Seattle are among just a few notable examples of local public art honoring Native Americans that come to mind. Though pleasing in their own way, totem poles and the sculpture of Chief Seattle at Tilikum Place park can’t compare to the sheer size and impact of Morrison’s 25-foot-high murals.

The largest of the eight portraits depict such historic figures as Chief Seattle and Sitting Bull. Others include family and friends from local Native American communities. It took Morrison 12 years and lots of spray paint to finish the works of art.

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Sketched, Dec. 2, 2014

Andrew Morrison’s murals on the Wilson-Pacific campus can be seen from blocks away.

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It’s hard to believe that two years ago, the larger-than-life creations seemed destined for destruction when Seattle Public Schools announced plans to demolish the buildings to make way for a new campus. The school district proposed taking photographs of the murals and displaying them in the new school so the artwork could be remembered.

Morrison was devastated. “Imagine how Michelangelo would have felt if they wanted to tear down the Sistine Chapel,” he told me the day I came to see the murals. “The 25-foot Chief Seattle is the largest commemoration of the city’s namesake in the country. Why would they want to destroy it?”

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Gabi_0116_Artist_05Sketched Nov, 7, 2014

A mural of Russell Wilson serves as the backdrop of family photo on “Blue Friday.”

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Andrew’s parents, Gary and Elesta Morrison in their home in Mountlake Terrace. Multiple paintings by their son decorate not only the living room but also the exterior walls of the house.

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It was another blow for the Auburn resident, of Apache and Haida descent, who has struggled to find his place in the community.

When I met him and his family in his childhood home in Mountlake Terrace, the 33-year-old artist stood in the small living room, raised his voice with raw emotion and stomped his feet: “Pain and rain. Pain and rain. My shoes are wet, my feet are cold. That’s what my life in Seattle has been all these years.”

Morrison had formal art training at the Rhode Island School of Design thanks to a scholarship, but the skills he used to create the murals came from years of experience as a graffiti artist.

Throughout that time, Morrison adopted several identities. First he was “Dice,” for his childhood hero, comedian Andrew Dice Clay. Later, he became “Ziplok,” because he “keeps things fresh.” The graffiti culture helped shape Morrison’s character. Graffiti artists are stealth, in your face, he said, hitting their targets in broad daylight and then disappearing.

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Sketched Dec. 2, 2014

Morrison, a huge Seahwaks fan, often speaks in football terms. He said the painting of Sitting Bull was a “Super Bowl effort.”

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But when it came to his campus murals, he wasn’t about to disappear and let his work vanish. The prospect of seeing the murals destroyed made Morrison doubt not only his career as an artist but also his identity. To save the murals, he rallied his family and friends, contacted media all over the country and emailed school-district officials for a chance to plead his case in person.

Eventually he got the attention of Johnpaul Jones, a distinguished Seattle-based architect of Cherokee and Choctaw descent who worked as the lead consultant on the design of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

“Andrew is a very talented artist who can bring a lot of understanding about the Native people and the Native heritage that goes back thousands of years,” Jones told me. “He is a rising star.”

After numerous meetings with Morrison and Jones, school-district officials realized the significant historical and artistic value of the artwork and decided to save them. “The District felt that the proper and respectful way to honor the true artistic integrity of the artist and his murals was to preserve the actual physical murals,” spokesman Tom Redman wrote in an email.

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Sketched Oct. 21, 2014

A mural covering the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe canoe-storage facility is one of Morrison’s most recent commissions. He posed for a sketch on a break from spray painting.

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Preserving the Great Walls of Indian Heritage won’t be an easy task, but Seattle school-district officials, architects and contractors who gathered this week for a public meeting at the Chief Seattle Club announced that they have a plan and the process of selecting a contractor for the task has already started.

Steel bands will support the walls as everything around them is demolished. Pits will be excavated around and under the walls so the murals can be removed intact and transported to a safe location until they can be integrated into the new school structures.

Construction of the new Wilson-Pacific campus is scheduled to start this spring. And when more than 1,500 elementary-and middle-school students walk in for the first time in the fall of 2017, the murals will be the first thing they see, said Jones as he pointed to blueprints that show where the eight murals will be located in the new campus.

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Sketched Jan. 14, 2015

These days, when he is not working on murals, Morrison can be found runing the art gallery at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Discovery Park.

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Morrison feels at peace now, humbled by all the support. The feeling of “pain and rain” is turning into joy, and he looks forward to developing the artistic career that began in 2001 when he painted his first mural at Wilson-Pacific. “I’m extremely excited … I can see my destiny unfolding in front of me. My life makes sense.”

Meeting Feb. 18
Artist Andrew Morrison, architect Johnpaul Jones and representatives from Seattle Public Schools will hold a public meeting at the offices of the Chief Seattle Club (410 Second Ave. Extension S.) 7-9 p.m., Feb. 18. They’ll give an update on the progress of the mural preservation and invite the public to share input about other ways to honor the history of the Indian Heritage School that operated at the Wilson-Pacific campus for decades.

Comments | More in Portraits, Public art

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