Anacortes: Washington State’s Painted Lady

Story and photography by
Nancy & Eric Anderson 


Sinatra put his stamp on Las Vegas, Mickey Mantle made his mark in New York and Oprah Winfrey wowed them in Chicago. Andy Warhol started painting in Pittsburgh and Bill Mitchell created the funky murals of Anacortes.

Er, Bill who and Ana where? Well, it’s a long story but we’re reminded of a New Hampshire judge where the lawyer standing before the bench had answered the judge by saying, “Your honor, it’s a long story…” to be told by the judge, “In that case, start at the end!” So, Bill Mitchell is an artist in the little town of Anacortes, Washington State, the traditional end of the road to catch the ferry to the San Juan Islands. And? He’s painted more than 123 numbered murals on the walls of this old world town named in 1879 by Amos Bowman, the first postmaster, after his wife, Anne Cortez. And? Well, the paintings are a slow process because Anacortes is running out of walls and because Bill Mitchell had an accident in 1971 that left him quadriplegic. He was driving his 1965 MGB “too fast, as usual,” he tells us. He lost control, skidded for 500 feet then rolled three times. “I never lost consciousness,” he says, “so I was able to talk to the police when they arrived and they were there in a minute. I said to them, ‘You didn’t take long to get here!’ and they replied, ‘We were right behind you. We were chasing you!’”

“I broke my neck,” he says. He has no movement in his fingers but can move his shoulders a little, and his elbows and his wrists so he has learned to paint using variations in those three joints. “My body has become a great drafting machine,” he says. He gets around town without complaint in his faithful 1954 Autoette electric cart and has been called the most colorful man in Anacortes. Some of that may go back to his life in the early pop-culture 1970s as a former “underground cartoonist” for the North West Passage, which is today the oldest surviving underground newspaper in the United States.

Mitchell who has lived in this neat example of Small Town America all his life couldn’t have chosen a prettier, more patriotic town as his canvas. Red, white and blue flowers cascade out of pots on the sidewalks and even fire hydrants show their patriotism with their Stars and Stripes décor. The houses stand on the streets gussied up like prom queens. Hanging baskets spill flowers everywhere. People smile in the streets; they seem to know tourism is important or maybe they sense their town is special, historic and just a tad different from others. The volunteers in the tourist office on the main street are particularly amiable as if Anacortes had been designed by Walt Disney and they had to do their bit to make it all work.

As you enter the downtown area of the Anacortes mural project heading north on Commercial Avenue you find on the east side of Commercial, on the north side of 10th Street, Mitchell’s mural of the Yankee Doodle, the passenger ferry that connected the town with Bellingham and San Juan Island in 1911. The street numbers drop as you head north. It’s easy to find the town’s murals with the street map provided free by the chamber of commerce office. Pick up a MacGregor’s Anacortes Visitors’ Guide or an Old Town Graphics map and you can drift around the town leisurely -- and safely because the town is used to tourists wandering wide-eyed around its streets with cameras. Parking is plentiful at the entrance to down town and Anacortes is absolutely flat, perfect for walkers and cyclists, and strollers -- and wheelchairs.

The pace is so languid in Anacortes and distances so short you’d want to park the car especially when you get to 6th street and see the mural of the first car wreck on Commercial Avenue. The automobile was a 1913 Ford and the damage was expensive (two broken wheels, a twisted axle and a wrecked fender with a bill of $34.80). Thirteen spectators seem to be surveying the damage. It sounds like an unlucky number -- but maybe none of them were lawyers!

And here’s another car, a Dodge 1924 truck. With more faces beside it, Paul and Nicola Luvera. But who are those people? Were they real? Did they live?

Indeed they did. Nicola was the grandfather, the Italian immigrant who came to America in 1902 laying rail for the Canadian Pacific Railroad first then working as a coal miner in Alberta till he had saved enough to bring his family over. Paul was the son. Paul died in 1990 at the age of 92. Paul’s son, Paul N. Luvera, Jr., has written a most moving account of his family at his blog on the anniversary of his father’s death. He is a prominent Seattle plaintiff’s attorney and we hope he hasn’t noticed our comment about lawyers in the previous automobile accident paragraph.

Asked to comment about the mural that shows his father and grandfather, Paul, Jr. replies:

“To me, the story of both of my parents is the story of the American dream. Poor people with little education came to America for a better life and in the process became good citizens. Neither of my parents had more then a grade school education. My grandparents on both dad's and mom's side of the family spoke little English. But they were convinced the United States was the best country in the world and my dad was very proud of the fact he was a naturalized citizen. They flew the American flag outside our house every day and both parents were active in the community.

“When I see Bill Mitchell's wonderful mural of my dad and my grandfather I think of how proud both of them would have been for the acknowledgment. It's appropriate that Bill painted them in work aprons because, along with my mother, they both worked hard all of their lives. They saw it as their obligation to educate three children and pay their way through life -- while giving back to the community for the blessings they felt they had received by being Americans.”

There are other worthy former residents of Anacortes honored on its walls from Will Lowman, a cannery owner way back in 1907 and Ray Scribner, a local butcher and bantamweight boxer who fought 1919-1923, to baby Joe Reilly, Jr. with his mother Flora Knapp Reilly in 1901 – and, completely at ease on their donkey for all time, Anna and little brother Walter Schwarz in 1904. Some of the young persons portrayed in town were Bill Mitchell’s own grandparents.

We can’t talk about the people of Anacortes without coming back to the painter himself, Bill Mitchell. Everyone in town knows who he is but he’s reticent and hard to run down. Even his self portrait is elusive. We finally found it hiding behind a bush that had to be pulled down to show his face although the anonymous juggler beyond the painting was fully exposed. Mitchell started his mural project in 1984 with the idea he would show one hundred years of his town’s history. He was declared the 2010 Patron of the Arts by the Anacortes Festival as tribute to the impact on the arts made by what it called “his grit, tenacity and talent.” Visitors hear he’s making 2011 his last year. As if sensing that, he has hurried his pace and has created 20 cutouts in the last 13 months.

He no longer invites local businesses to advise him if they have a wall that could handle the wood cutouts he now creates with a team of one (himself) and occasionally a total of four helpers. His first painting was Fred White and his 1893 Safety Bike which he painted in 1984 outside the Marine Hardware Store, the site chosen because it is the oldest and best known marine hardware store on the west coast.

We imagine it would be a great honor to be the last he’d paint next year, the final one of his celebrated Mural Project. The murals were painted from old photographs. “It’s very grass roots,“ Mitchell says. “The people may be long, long dead but are well remembered.” In the pictures he looks for a full body shot with the subject standing outdoors. Then he goes into what he calls “his Frankenstein work: cutting off arms, shortening legs, creating a mirror image, even switching heads on a body.” He next makes an acetate and projects the image on to ¾ inch plywood that has a moderate density overlay because that surface is smooth.

“Is it is the painting that takes the time?” we ask him.

“No, it’s the figuring things out that takes time,” he replies, “although I’m helped by my childhood memory of my father saying ‘Measure twice, cut once.’”

The subjects painted are maritime transportation, the fishing industry, early automobiles, music, entertainment and leisure activities. The models from old photographs can be historical events, teaching experiences, crusty curmudgeons, favorite children, worthy locals, pretty girls. A favorite mural includes the view in the window of the Skagit Saloon, a bar in the entire city block that burned down in 1902. There were many lumber mills in the town at that time and sparks from the equipment could easily set fire to the piles of sawdust.

The people shown were real. Tommy Thompson, for example, was a retired engineer who had a lifetime fascination with trains. He ran his hand-built narrow gauge railway train for 13 years along 7 blocks of downtown until he died in 1999. He created everything himself: laid the rails, forged the brass bell, sewed the velvet seat cushions, molded the interiors, painted the gold leaf lettering. “He built his Anacortes Railway piece by piece over the years, working on it nights and weekends and recording more than 1,400 hours on one car alone,” said his wife of 43 years, Anna Thompson. “The Mayor’s wife once said he put more smiles on children’s faces than anyone she knew!” The train is gone now but the painting surely remains to celebrate the Thompsons.

es they were real people. And some of the cutouts have secrets. Bill is a neat worker and has lots of patience so he sometimes adds messages to his art. The 1921 model T bug, for example, has the history of that model written on its tires and a portrait of Andrew Carnegie has the life history of the “The Man of Steel” written on his lapel and inner leg seam. “Sixty words and they took me 65 minutes to write,” says Bill Mitchell.

“Any more secrets?” we ask him and get the reply, “You’ll have to look for them yourself!”

Mitchell may not have favorites amongst his subjects but he clearly has a soft spot for John Wayne, whose former fishing boat is tied down about 20 feet from Mitchell’s own boat at Lovric’s Sea-Craft boatyard at the end of town. He painted Wayne 8 foot tall from the 1959 movie Rio Bravo for the actors’ grouping at the new movie theater. To Mitchell’s chagrin somebody stole the cutout. Painted on the back, fortunately, was a message that, if found, there would be a reward. Soon a kid brought it in, with Bill’s thinking he’d maybe been the original thief. Bill took a photo of the boy cringing in front to the wood cut of the actor. It looked for all the world as if Sheriff John Wayne had the kid by the ear!

If there is a lesson from the murals and from the past it must be that life goes on in Anacortes. A motor bike passing by may stop briefly in front of Edna Whitney and her Tandem Bicycle Friends 1910, and a truck may park by chance beside the memory of Bill Bessner’s 1921 Model T bug but, nevertheless, today’s residents go about their business.

Indeed John Wayne himself once said:

“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”