Controversial murals on the move

CENTRALIA — It appears the odyssey may be over for the Spafford murals, a controversial set of state-owned paintings that were banished from public view more than two decades ago.

Crews have finished installing the infamous murals in the new auditorium at Centralia College — about 25 miles south of Olympia, where the paintings were originally displayed in the State Capitol Building.

Though it remains to be seen whether the murals will spark as much uproar as they did in 1981, state and college officials hope the long-exiled murals are here to stay.

"I'm so glad to see them up and appreciated, in a place where they will get the kind of attention they deserve," said Marygrace Jennings, cultural resources manager for the state.

Seattle artist Michael Spafford was hired by the state in 1980 to create four murals to hang above the visitors' galleries in the state House of Representatives. Another artist, Alden Mason, was selected to create murals for the Senate chambers.

It was all part of a long-range plan to put more public art in the Capitol. Instead, the murals became the center of one of the state's most heated art feuds.

"I don't want to create controversy," said Spafford, who opposed relocating his murals to Centralia. "I wish it were just gone. I wish I had never done it in the first place."

Spafford's murals for the House were based on "The Labors of Hercules," a story from Greek mythology. He said he was trying to draw a parallel to Olympia, Greece, where Hercules' struggles against evil and monsters are depicted at the Temple of Zeus.

But controversy erupted almost as soon as the first murals, two 10-by-46-foot paintings titled the "Twelve Labors of Hercules," were installed in the House. Some lawmakers felt the abstract paintings — each a series of stark, high-contrast images — were not appropriate in the stately Capitol.

Others viewed some of the images as distasteful and even obscene, especially the one in which Hercules is shown subduing Amazon Queen Hippolyte. Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, once referred to it as a "symbol of rape."

Within three months after they were hung, the murals were covered with curtains.

In 1987, the House voted to take down the Spafford murals. The Senate also voted to remove the less-controversial Mason murals, also viewed by many as inappropriate for the Capitol.

Several arts groups filed lawsuits on behalf of Spafford and Mason to block the state from taking down the murals. But once convinced the murals would not be damaged, the court ruled they could be removed.

In 1993, the House put $162,000 in the budget to remove the Hercules paintings — nearly double what the state paid Spafford to create them.

But while the paintings were spurned in Olympia, they were coveted at little Centralia College in conservative Lewis County. In the late 1980s, Henry Kirk, then president of the college, began trying to get the Spafford and Mason murals moved to his campus.

Now, after more than a decade of legal wrangling and fund-raising, the college finally has both sets of murals.

The Mason murals — brightly colored mosaics depicting nature scenes — were installed in the college library in the early 1990s. Then last spring the college worked out a deal with the state to hang the Spafford murals in the college's recently completed Corbet Theatre, which has wall spaces designed to meet the exact dimensions of the murals.

The college has renewable 20-year leases — at $1 per year — on both sets of murals.

As its part of the deal for getting the Spafford murals, the college had to come up with about $75,000 to restore, transport and install the paintings. A state-approved painting conservator spent much of the summer restoring the murals, which were covered with a protective layer of varnish and tissue before being put into storage 10 years ago.

Today they plan to hang curtains over the murals, which will remain covered until the official unveiling ceremony Oct. 11.

Spafford said he would not attend. He said the murals were designed specifically for the House chambers and will not look right in another setting. He would rather see them destroyed.

"I'm not angry about what's happened, it's just that this is not my preference," Spafford said yesterday. "Personally, I'm very concerned about the way my work looks."

College officials acknowledged Spafford's concerns but felt the murals should be preserved and put back on display.

"These are irreplaceable pieces of art that were purchased by the taxpayers of the state," said Don Frey, spokesman for the college. "I believe the public has a right to be able to see these."

Frey said the Spafford murals will help make the college and Centralia a "destination art center." And he said the controversial history of the murals will provide a great illustration for academic discussions about freedom of expression and the role of public art.

"I wish them luck," Spafford replied. "I just wish they had somebody else's art to do that with."

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or