Condon Arts Council honors Gilliam SWCD with steelhead mural

The first mural in Condon was painted last week. The Condon Arts Council worked with the Center for Biological Diversity to commission the painting – which depicts two steelhead fish. The mural design was selected to honor the work of the Gilliam Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) – which has done extensive work in steelhead habitat restoration on Thirtymile Creek, Hay Creek, and Rock Creek in Gilliam County.

The Gilliam SWCD has been recognized as a leader in conservation efforts at the federal and state level. The small district has punched above its weight - bringing millions of dollars to fund steelhead habitat restoration and to improve streams and watersheds in the county.

Steelhead, which once were prominent in the tributaries of the John Day River, are now threatened and are fighting for survival.

At a mural reveal party on Sunday, some twenty people gathered to see the mural, and to hear from Noah Greenwald, Endangered Species Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. Attendees also got to meet Roger Peet, a talented painter and artist who completed the Condon mural. Aly Sedlock, who is opening the Wild Sage restaurant in the Hotel Condon, provided a special meal for the event.

Peet said he enjoyed staying in Condon for a week while he painted the mural.

"It's been a real pleasure to connect with the community here in Condon and to talk to people about the mural as it's going up," Peet said. "I've had a lot of positive feedback which is always great to hear. We want these mural projects to help to foster a sort of civic environmental pride, and an identification with the other species that make up the landscapes that we cherish- to suggest that these endangered species are us, we are them, and their absence would diminish us and our communities. The restoration work being done to improve steelhead habitat locally is something to be proud of, and guaranteeing a future for the steelhead means a future for all of us."

The steelhead mural is one of the largest that has been painted for the Endangered Species Mural Project. Titled "Steelhead: Past and Future" – the mural is 1,500 square feet. It also marks Peet's 29th mural for the project.

Ten years ago, Greenwald and Peet were talking about a mural program that could raise awareness for threatened and endangered species in the United States. So was born the Endangered Species Mural Project.

Over the past decade, Peet has painted murals of endangered species from Ajo, Arizona to Birmingham, Alabama and many points in between.

The Condon mural is one of the last that Peet will do for the project. The Endangered Species Mural Project will sunset – and Peet is preparing to do his 30th and final mural in West Virginia next month.

For the Condon Arts Council, the mural was a dream come true.

In 2022, a visiting artist named Rankin Renwick met with a couple of board members from the Condon Arts Council – a nonprofit organization that was created to bring more arts and cultural activities to the community. When passing by the Sweeney Mortuary's prominent south-facing wall Renwick, a filmmaker who lives on the Oregon Coast, asked if anyone had thought of doing a mural in Condon. Renwick showed some of the murals that Roger Peet had completed and shared his contact information.

So began an effort by the Condon Arts Council to commission a mural in Condon.

The Condon Arts Council then purchased the Sweeney Mortuary in October of 2023.

But the mural project did have some obstacles. The City of Condon did not have an existing ordinance for murals on the books. Instead, anything painted on a wall had to fit into the existing rules for commercial advertising – which limited paintings to eight feet by eight feet.

Fortunately, the City of Condon saw the benefit of having a separate ordinance for murals and public art. In recent years, cities and small towns across the country have used public art to generate interest from the community, and to boost tourism. Murals in cities like The Dalles have helped to create a buzz about the arts and cultural activities. They have also helped to create economic growth as visitors are more likely to stop and look at public art instead of simply passing through. Public art can also create a "snowball effect" where visitors stop at local businesses. Murals can also have an educational component and generate discussion and debate in small communities.

The Condon City Council passed an ordinance for murals – which took effect in December of 2023.

The ordinance required applicants to go through the Historic Districts Committee, and to then get final approval from the Condon City Council.

In April the mural design was approved by the Historical Districts Committee. In the May meeting of the Condon City Council, the mural application was approved unanimously. And while some members of the city council questioned the design, there was a resounding consensus that murals would be a nice addition to Condon.

The Center for Biological Diversity paid for the mural, which is estimated to have cost $15,000. This has allowed for the Condon Arts Council to prioritize funding more arts programming for kids and adults in the community, and to also pursue grants for capital improvements to the theatre and old mortuary building.

The mural has certainly created a buzz in Condon. Several people stopped while passing through to speak with Roger Peet and to ask about the mural. It has also been the talk of the town for local residents.

Soon, the Gilliam SWCD will build a kiosk that will provide more context for the mural. The kiosk will provide information about the Gilliam SWCD and how steelhead are returning to creeks and streams in Gilliam County.

And while many local people have asked "why are there fish on a wall in Condon?" - The Condon Arts Council sees an opportunity for engagement and education. Too few people know about the work that the Gilliam SWCD is doing and how steelhead are making a comeback in Gilliam County. And they will also learn more about the Condon Arts Council in the process.

And for those who would rather see something else on the walls of Condon – that is now possible. With the mural ordinance established, the next mural is just waiting for a wall and a design.

Editor's Note: Stephen Allen is on the board of the Condon Arts Council and loves murals.


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