Big As Life: A Trail Of Historic Art -- Murals Decorating West Seattle Walls

In the blazing heat of summer, the woman approached the building's blank wall and began painting - but with a paintbrush, each stroke laid with care, the antithesis of the spray can-wielding grafitti gremlin.

Now Susan Tooke Crichton's work is almost finished and a 15-by-30-foot mural - a scene from West Seattle's past - adorns the wall, a moment of history from the days when little steam ferries plied Puget Sound, with the Olympic Mountains vivid in the background.

Crichton is among a number of artists who are turning West Seattle into one big outdoor art gallery. Six murals have been painted or are in progress on the walls of commercial buildings.

All but one of them decorate the business district known as The Alaska Junction, where Southwest Alaska Street and California Avenue Southwest converge and streetcar lines once did.

The way it's going in West Seattle, blank walls one day may be in short supply. Space for a seventh mural, to be a parade scene 62 feet long, is already outlined on a new six-story building still under construction.

If the Junction Development Committee and its chairman, Earl Cruzen, have their way, there will be even more large outdoor murals of historical significance in West Seattle, perhaps outside the Junction in the Fauntleroy and Alki areas as well.

``I would like to see a trail of them. It would make a scenic ride for people,'' said Cruzen. ``We are interested in making this an attractive place to visit and shop. When Aunt Millie shows up from Minnesota, take her down to the Junction to see the murals.''

Cruzen got on the phone one day in 1988 and began raising money from private individuals and firms to match a $17,000 King County grant for the first two murals, which were completed last year to commemorate the state's centennial. Then more money was raised to match a $25,000 grant from City of Seattle in neighborhood funds.

The murals project was off and running.

Top muralists have been commissioned to paint the scenes, based on research done by the Southwest Historical Society. They are paid a mininum fee of $5,000 and given other financial considerations, Cruzen said.

To be chosen, the muralists first must submit examples of their work, which is then judged with the aid of South Seattle Community College's art department.

Crichton, born in New Jersey and now a resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia, created her mural on the back wall of the brick Campbell Building, the oldest building in the Junction. The colorful scene was painted from an old photograph and is of a small ferry at a floating dock crowded with people wearing what appears to be their Sunday-best clothing, with children playing in the foreground.

Beginning in July, Crichton painted nine or 10 hours a day, seven days a week. It was hot work at first, and glaring when the sun was on the east-facing wall, before the first rains came.

``You're climbing up and down scaffolding, you're painting in all kinds of weather conditions. The sound of the traffic going by constantly is distracting and irritating,'' said Crichton, whose mural is in an alley and delivery trucks have had to squeeze past the scaffolding.

Last year, she painted a mural in Chemainus, a Vancouver Island town that has gone for outdoor paintings in a big way. Robert Dafford of Lafayette, La., another artist at work in West Seattle and who recently painted two murals in France, said the murals of Chemainus are putting it on the tourist map.

``That little town, with a population of 3,000, has now done 27 murals, and with vigorous marketing over five years, is now attracting 400,000 tourists in a season and realizing an $8 million impact,'' Dafford said.

Dafford was at work on a mural depicting the lumber industry in Raymond, Pacific County, when he was caught by the roaming eye of Cruzen, always on the lookout for muralists. Now Dafford and his brother Douglas can be found outside the Jacobson Building in West Seattle. One wall of the building is their ``canvas'' for a mural that will depict the first wooden swing bridge across the Duwamish River and the fledgling industries of Harbor Island.

Robert Dafford has been an artist for about 20 years, and he said he makes a good living doing large-scale paintings wherever they may take him. ``I did $60,000 in murals this year, and I expect to do $80,000 worth next year,'' he said.

Not far away, on a rear wall of Olsen's Drugs at Southwest Morgan Street, muralist Bruce Rickett, who has lived in Africa, England and now Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, has recently begun to paint a scene of West Seattle's old Morgan Street Market. He expects it to be finished by mid-September, providing the rains hold off.

While Rickett painted, a passer-by, C. DesJardins, stopped to appraise the outlined mural. Asked to comment, she said: ``Murals should be used a lot more. I think they are just great. What's interesting about a blank wall? Besides, it's history, you know, the scenes they've been doing.''