For the past year and a half, artist Andrew Morrison, architect Johnpaul Jones and members of the Native American community fought to save the cherished murals at the soon-to-be demolished Wilson-Pacific School. Their struggle paid off: The eight murals will be preserved and incorporated into two new schools, and the site’s rich Native history will be honored in the architecture.
But on the morning of Feb. 23, when Morrison drove to Wilson-Pacific, what he saw was a blow to his spirit. The 25-foot-tall painted faces of Chief Joseph, Chief Sitting Bull and Geronimo were covered in white graffiti. Their eyes were barely visible underneath the splattered tag.
“They were just desecrated,” Morrison said. “A real act of hate has occurred.”
Wilson-Pacific is being replaced by Seattle Public Schools (SPS) to upgrade aging facilities and make way for more students. Construction — including the process of removing, storing and reinstalling Morrison’s murals — is slated to start in less than a month. Morrison painted his first murals at Wilson-Pacific in 2001, and until now, no vandal had ever touched them.
Less than a week before the desecration, on Feb. 18, Morrison and Jones stood in the Chief Seattle Club and showed a small group of community members, art enthusiasts, architects and SPS project managers where the murals would be placed in the future elementary and middle schools. Yellow marks on a blueprint showed one mural next to each main entrance.
“The first rule I had,” said Jones, of Cherokee and Choctaw descent, “is that these murals can’t be marginalized. They have to be brought out front.”
At the meeting, Morrison and Jones, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal last year in part for his design work on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, also presented ideas for keeping the site’s Native history alive.
First, two interpretive walls: 30-foot long educational panels that would run along the main hallways of each school. Second, the Honoring Circle: a gathering space that would sit in the middle school courtyard to act as what Jones called a “space for spiritual renewal.”
Tom Redman, SPS spokesperson, said the Honoring Circle and panels will need approval from Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board, which gave Wilson-Pacific a landmark designation last July.
Wilson-Pacific once housed the Indian Heritage School, a middle and high school that was a touchstone for the Native community and thrived under the direction of Robert Eaglestaff in the ’90s (“A loss of heritage,” RC, July 31, 2013).
The program has since faded away, but the building has continued to serve as a community hub for Native-focused activities.
The surrounding area, Licton Springs, was a sacred site of the Duwamish people.
Both Jones and Morrison, who was recently hired as the manager of the Sacred Circle Gallery at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, said they envisioned the walls, the circle and the murals working in harmony: They would pass on important aspects of Native history and culture to hundreds of future students. Morrison, of Apache and Haida descent, added that he thinks of the circle as a memorial for Eaglestaff, who died in 1996 while dancing at a powwow.
Several ideas gained through community outreach had been incorporated into the designs. The circle now includes the concepts of earth, wind, fire and water, as well as engraved quotes from Eaglestaff and Indian chiefs.
One possible quote: “Preserve the land and air and the rivers for your children’s children and love it as we have loved it.”
On Feb. 23 Morrison and Jones met with an administrator from the landmarks board to discuss the approval process, and everything seemed ready to go. Then Morrison visited Wilson-Pacific, pulled there by an email from a friend. Standing in front of his murals, he saw years of work covered in the haphazardly-sprayed words “DAP KILO.”
The vandals likely used a fire extinguisher to match the height of the murals.
Morrison immediately drove to the police station to file a report and contacted Jones.
“All this positive stuff we’ve been doing, and then ‘Boom,’” Jones said. “To have this happen, it’s kind of heart-wrenching.”
Morrison said he believes the tag may be the work of a member of a local graffiti group known as Down Around Pike. “This was done by someone rooted in anger and hate,” Morrison said. “Otherwise they couldn’t have done it. I feel really sad for whoever did this. It’s a low act of no integrity and cowardice.”
SPS was already facing the formidable task of integrating the murals into the new buildings. Four of the murals are on old concrete walls and are estimated to weigh nearly 50 tons.
“The entire work scope is very challenging,” said Adam Wilson, contractor and senior project manager from Lydig Construction, who attended the most recent meeting. “To disassemble them from the structures they are a part of, transport them, store and protect them, then reattach them again: It’s going to be big.”
Those same four walls were the ones vandalized, and now, there is the additional challenge of removing the graffiti.
On the morning of Feb. 24, Jones, Morrison, sps project managers and crew members from Seattle Public Utilities’ Graffiti Rangers stopped by the murals to assess damage and discuss plans. As they talked, community members stopped by to express their condolences. “It’s really shocking,” said Justine Kim, sps construction project manager. “It’s just really shameful for this person to do something like this.”
She said she does not believe the graffiti will delay construction.
Morrison’s father, Gary, who is a house painter, said time is of the essence to clean the murals before the graffiti hardens and cures. Morrison will likely have to restore parts of the murals.
By that afternoon, the plan was to meet Feb. 25 and set to work.
“After this intense anger I felt, I tried to calm my spirit,” Morrison said. “I don’t want to add to the negative or fuel the fire. I’m just doing my best to be cool and calm.”