Anacortes mural artist and historian Bill Mitchell is fond of boasting that there is “only one Anacortes” in the world!
If its name is a distinguishing characteristic of this seaside community, it is Bill’s colorful mural artwork that sets the town apart in a delightful way – turning the city’s entire main drag and many side streets into a public “gallery” with surprises around every corner.
From city founders to children at play, fantastic dragons to Hollywood superstars, Bill’s outdoor mural characters provide opportunity for countless hours of education and appreciation of creative art skills.
Bill, whose family moved to Anacortes when he was two years old, is a tireless artist whose attention to detail includes snippets of local history (look closely for hand-printed detail “hidden” on the face of his murals). The artist has painted all his plywood murals from the seat of a wheelchair or electric cart, tenaciously pursuing his passion for decades despite a near-fatal car accident when he was a teenager. Most murals reflect people and scenes captured in photographs.
On September 2, 2017, 68-year-old Bill celebrated the “One Third of a Century” mark since his first mural went up. On that day, 33 and 1/3 years after mounting his first public mural, he and a “posse” of friends scrambled around the island creating photo ops with more than a dozen small murals featuring a 30-inch “Bobo,” the one-time Anacortes resident who spent most of his life as a star attraction at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.
Stops along the way during this island-wide September romp included Anacortes Museum, historic Causland Park, Little Cranberry Lake and popular viewpoint spots Mt. Erie and Cap Sante. While the posting of these gorilla murals was temporary, Mitchell continues to add permanently to a public display of more than 175 murals mounted at more than 140 locations.
Recent additions to the eye-catching mural collection include local businessman Oscar Johnson (Frontier Industries) and commercial fisherman/stevedore Bill Adams (north side of Island Café). Adams, who died in 2015, had joined the U.S. Navy at age 17. Bill said Adams was part of a U.S. Navy crew that captured the second “Enigma” coding machine from a German submarine in 1944.
Also making the news recently is Bill’s massive mural of the one-time passenger boat “Yankee Doodle,” transported to a new location on the north side of the building housed by Kennelly’s Music. This artwork became a huge “postage stamp” when Bill chose to paint the side of the building as a backdrop before re-mounting the mural.
Bill notes that the mural project began in 1984 with the name ‘Anacortes Renaissance and Revival Confederation,” or ARRC. He gets a kick out of comparing that ARRC with Noah’s ark of the Old Testament. Like the pairs of creatures on Noah’s boat, Bill’s mural collection boasts numerous “pairs” of subject matter, ranging from trains to schooners, bicycles to Model Ts.
As noted, it would take many hours – even days – to view every one of Bill’s murals. Few locals outside of the artist’s entourage can even claim that achievement. Bill would never list “personal favorite” murals, but his largest collection of work is the 18 movie stars (and Star Wars characters) gathered at the Anacortes Cinema on 4th Street. Runner-up is Anacortes Marine Supply & Hardware/Alley Cat Antiques on Commercial Avenue, just two blocks away.
He loves his mural of Zack Benn and his Model T, a strange looking turn-of-the-century vehicle configured to be what Bill describes as “the first “motorized lunch wagon in the United States.”
My personal favorite? The train station mural mounted on the back wall of the one-time train depot on “R” Avenue adjacent to Cap Sante Marina. After all, this community was founded by visionaries whose dreams were to see a major railroad terminus on Fidalgo Island.
Another personal tip? Take the time to examine up-close-and-personal the face of each mural for details including the identity of the mural subject, and oftentimes dates and significant facts (text on the hem of Marilyn Monroe’s dress identifies the star plus the name and date of the movie that inspired the mural).
Vital note: a detailed map of Anacortes and the location of murals is available at the Anacortes Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Center at 819 Commercial Avenue. You might even get some personal insights from gracious VIC volunteers.
In short, have fun with the Anacortes Mural Project! Bill wouldn’t have it any other way…
by Steve Berentson