Murals Bring Color and Character to Bellingham
Mural by Gretchen Leggitt on Nov. 5. // Photo by Max Gleiberman
Bellingham is known as the city of subdued excitement, but if you walk around, you’ll see quite the opposite in the colorful, creative street art splashed throughout the city.
Gretchen Leggitt created much of the street art around the city. She painted a colorful display of melodic lines and abstract shapes that form a scenic view of the Cascade Mountains juxtapositioning the ramshackled steel wall that runs along Cornwall Avenue.
She transformed Bellingham, turning the streets into her personal canvas. In her eight years in Bellingham, she’s painted both commissioned and free art throughout the city.
“I get fulfillment out of art. It’s like eating for me,” Leggitt said. “To feel complete I need recreation and creativity. I feel a void without them.”
Leggit fell in love with art at a young age. Both her parents were visual artists who pushed her to be creative at any opportunity, she said.
“Whether it be balsa wood models in my grandfather’s basement or taking charcoal out of the fire on a camping trip and drawing on rocks, I was always doing hands-on art,” Leggitt said.
Leggitt said she lived and taught visual art for nine years at an independent school in Issaquah, Washington, as well as Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, before she moved to Bellingham in 2011.
In between jobs, Leggitt focused on simply making art for the sake of art. This time in her life was about creating on a whim, whether she needed to get something out, or to just work through whatever she was feeling at the moment.
Although, artistic freedom has changed since she turned her passion into a full-time job.
“Now that I’m a full-time artist there’s definitely more constraints, there’s many times I do feel like a marionette with a paint brush,” Leggitt said. “There are moments that I’m guided by someone else’s thoughts.”
She said the trick to make commissions still personal is to infuse her unique self, flare and emotion into everything she creates.
Leggitt said when she moved to Bellingham there was very little street art and that it has been absolutely incredible and gratifying to transform a lot of dismal spaces into works of art.
The Cascades mural that Leggitt created is the largest mural in the state of Washington, spanning two football fields.
“It was dead space, we found over 50 hypodermic needles while cleaning it up to prepare,” Leggitt said. “Since then, I have had strangers coming up to me frequently thanking me for making Bellingham a better place, thanking me for giving them some sense of identity. The murals are bringing cultural and aesthetic identity to Bellingham.”
Fellow street artist Shawn Cass said anyone can immediately see Leggitt’s talent when she paints.
“Her mountains and landscapes are amazing,” Cass said. “Her style is clean, you can tell it’s her own unique, signature style.”
Leggitt said her first mural was the exterior and interior of the Culture Café at Kombucha Town, which allowed free artistic reign to transform the restaurant.
Patrick Mullen, who works at the brick and mortar front of Culture Café, said Leggitt is an intelligent artist and her street art is a great form of storytelling and a gorgeous interpretation of the natural world.
“At base level, it improves the cosmetic beauty of the city,” Mullen said. “It’s safe to say it adds to the soul of the city, too.”
Leggitt recently finished two projects, one in the alleyway of JJ’s Market downtown and another mural at the Kona Bike shop.
She said there are struggles to every mural, from the expenses — which she usually has to pay out of pocket — to the structure of the wall, access to supplies, places to paint and paint chipping. It is always intimidating at first, she said. Every single one of them is a challenge but the payoff far exceeds the struggles.
“So many times new commissions that I would have never thought of took me down new rabbit holes of creative exploration that turn me on to something new. Murals were never my plan,” Leggitt said.
Leggitt decided to start painting murals after she was asked by the owner of Kombucha Town to paint for them, especially since it pays well.
The inspiration for her murals in the alley behind JJ’s was to make something beautiful, with a message of transformation, she said. Her art depicts women transforming something absence of life, the fragments of dragonflies and beetles represent blowing life into them, in the end becoming beautiful creatures flying off.
“It is conveying a message of hope, we all have the ability to control our destiny and both of those murals show that you can lift off if you persevere,” Leggitt said.
A side of Bellingham, Leggitt said, she didn’t know before doing murals was the transient homeless population. She said at first, she did not understand the homeless issue.
She said she’s had a mind-blowing experience working on the streets and having open conversations with homeless people almost every day she’s out painting. Speaking and engaging with the homeless has been a learning experience, she said. With the empathy and the appreciation she has gained, it has been pretty exceptional.
“Standing in an alleyway with a grown person who has a broken life, who lives on the streets and seeing them shed tears of joy because they are so moved by artwork is 10,000 times why I make art now,” she said. “Having that ability to bring that much joy and impact to a place, that’s the magic.”