Its really all about the music. Our Aberdeen generated the funding and goodwill for a
celebratory project to give visible form to some of the feelings the Harbor has for its own
music. A group of successful young artists came back to the Harbor to work together
under my direction, become friends and make unique contributions to the feel and flow
of the imagery. We are artists depicting artists. We hope to know how people might
experience this mural by responses on the website nirvanamural.com
Thank you Nirvana.
Nirvana and Aberdeen began in June of 2013 with an invitation from Our Aberdeen to
consider doing one of two outdoor mural projects for the community. I was to choose
between the subject of Historic Aberdeen or Kurt Cobain. Instantly my response was
that I would be interested in doing both at once. I wanted to place the music squarely in
the landscape where I have now lived for a quarter century. It was that first moment of
insight about the context, nexus and matrix of the Harbor as the birthplace of Nirvana
that directed the following twelve months of research, musing, texting, conversation,
drawing, inspiration, fundraising, listening and planning.
My second realization was more gradual: that the mural really had to be about Nirvana
as a group: about the music as a complex confluence of people, strands and influences.
I began a search for the subject matter that would best suggest that and through a
series of drawings and collages I sought a visual structure that could absorb the detail
and convey the flow across a format responsive to the shape of the building itself.
Aberdeen was central to the development of the music. Author Charles Cross made that
abundantly clear to his audience when he visited the Aberdeen Timberland Regional
Library in connection with the publication of his latest book on Cobain. In response to a
question he stated emphatically that “Aberdeen owns Grunge – and that it should be
celebrating that history.” For me, the context is properly the entire Harbor culture –
including Aberdeen and its communities, economies, weather, look, history and
reputation. The real mystery is how the music grew out of the place – a unique alchemy
of emulation and rejection.
I came to town in 1989 to be the one person Art Department at Grays Harbor College.
As a new faculty member I was impressed with the quality and work ethic of many of my
students from here. From whence does all this talent spring? The local music scenes
were in the deep background for me. Then all of a sudden Nirvana was everywhere and
almost as quickly Kurt was gone. I saw more tribute graffiti about him in Europe than
here: obviously something special had happened. Most people missed it in the event.
Reflecting on my relationship to the music, I soon realized that the mural project needed
the addition of younger visions and voices. I wanted to work with artists from the Harbor
who had heard that music earlier in their lives: people who had been even more
sensitive to the sounds and the scene, the wall to wall coverage on MTV, the loss of a
hero, the urban crowds gathered in mourning.
As the backing for the mural project became more tangible I reached out to artists from
the Harbor who had worked with me before: Anthony James Cotham, Dominic
Senibaldi,Jason Sobottka and David Wall immediately accepted my invitations to work
on the project. We began months of trading sketches and ideas via cellphone texts and
e-mails in preparation for one month of intensely physical labor of laying out the
preliminary drawing and painting it on this scale. We worked in the second-story space
of the downtown Electric Building generously made available to us by owner Kevin
Moore. The building itself and its visual proximity to Highway 101, the railroad tracks,
Chehalis River, hills and local industries, was crucial to the project.
The mural is imbued with the spirit of young artists, now colleagues,who are deeply
familiar with this place and its music. Each brought to the project overlapping and
necessary skill sets. We required practiced skills in painting, color mixing, layout,
drawing, design, lettering, portrait drawing, stencil-cutting, and familiarity with the
relevant electric/music equipment.
Our teamwork has culminated in the 68 foot long mural mounted on the Wishkah Street
side of Moore’s Interiors. It is executed with durable OneShot enamels on Di-Bond
panels installed by Rick Burgess of Coastline signs. The collage of imagery
recognizable to those who know the music and its milieu was first laid out on the sanded
and de-greased panels in soluble Stabilo pencil, the layout revised and readjusted many
times, then mostly effaced and de-greased again. The quick-drying tough-curing
enamels were applied by brush, air brush, printing, stippling and and hand-cut stencils.
Apart from the months of design development we five artists together put in about 720
hours of painting time.
The mural is not an apology, it is not fan art, it is not a justification, it is not hero worship,
it is not Seattle. It is not about Kurt Cobain alone though it acknowledges his tragic arc:
rather it memorializes Nirvana as a group – to some extent its present state and mostly
references the Harbor here where it all began. It recognizes our Converse wearing All
Stars, alludes to the price paid for their success and asks us to “Think of Me”.
One cannot get over the sad and sorry loss of Kurt Cobain. His train wreck of a life
contrasts poignantly with the ongoing vitality of Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic as
people and musicians. As I sorted through material looking for resonant imagery the
problem became what to leave out. There is so much to know and feel. Several things
gradually became crystal clear to me about Nirvana that seem also be true of other
significant art and artists: the root appeal of the artists’ emotional honesty, how brief a
moment was their glory, how the art grew without money from the mud, noise, and need
to escape, how they went all-out with the blind faith of crowd surfers leaping into space,
and how problematic it is to craft attractive structures out of fundamentally disturbing
Those who know the Harbor feel its landscape of bright greys and shiny mud, the
clearcut ridgetops, tires in the rain, once noisy now-abandoned factories and now the
prison, stumps and pilings, pedestrian unfriendly streets and sidewalks, ragged oily
factory clothing, mind numbing work, smokestacks and jake brakes. Those who live
here get the mud and the flood and young folks’ need to escape. The gritty, if not
grungy, aspects of the Harbor, though, are by Nirvana transformed into laments
universal to restless youth. The outer landscape of this place is turned inward to be
refashioned by Nirvana as a soul-cry that is virtually universal. You just don’t have
Nirvana without the honesty about that. Bob McFadden, Aaron Burckhard, Dale
Crover ,Dave Foster, Chad Channing, Dan Peters, all raged against the rain before
Grohl sent the band into stardom with the way he hit the drums like they owed him
money. Novoselic was a constant presence alongside the young Kurt: as buddies
against the world. When you survive it even takes on a certain beauty.
The imbedded contradictions that characterize great imagery are right there in the
music. Nirvana so obviously fuses incommensurable opposites that nearly everyone
gets it: new unities of attraction/repulsion, loud/soft, melodic/chaotic, vulnerable/
aggressive, grunge/pop, fast/slow, wanting success/rejecting popularity. This is what we
had to get at as visual artists.
The mural began to take form as a layered collage of visual facts unified by horizontal
flow. Bright color areas ALTERNATE with zones dominated by black/white/gray that
suggest the verse-chorus-verse contrasts of the recognizable musical pattern.
Overlapping text, logos, signs, symbols, objects, portraits, landscape spaces, musical
instruments are densely packed in a border of school-bus yellow.
Kurt was always intertwined with the visual arts. His own drawings and band stencils
somewhat influenced our selection of material. His predilection for the medium of
collage provided the impetus for the original sketches. Graffiti, album covers and poster
designs suggested we mix different styles, genres and levels of visual coding and
representation: illusionistic posters, “actual” tagging, painterly renditions with brushwork
of portraiture and landscape spaces, representations of the ben day dots of commercial
offset lithographic printing, stenciled shapes, the pixels of broadcast media, sign
painter’s techniques on lettering and logos which do not represent anything but
themselves and so on.
Transgressive elements break the boundary here and there. The red stripe is an analog
to Grohl’s drum work: a bright, clear, and precise boundary within which everything else
can be itself. The border forms a classic triad of color primaries in conjunction with the
low-intensity blue cladding of the building itself.
The border is punctuated by the colorful names of many bands contemporary with
Nirvana in the regional and national scene of indie/grunge music. The Vaselines were
Scots but super important favorites: the central names at top were most significant to
them personally. A SubPop poster for Lamefest inspired the dingbats stenciled between
the band names. There are more names than we had room for and that will possibly
become a mother love bone of contention. The names are very important, even just
those we selected evoke style and the moment in time in ways that nothing else can.
On the left the flow begins as a stream of memory emanating from the flame of a Bic
lighter held by a concertgoer. It merges with the industrial steam from Chehalis River
mill stacks and extends as fog and rain over the Harbor. It moves into Think of Me Hill
on the Wishkah River and right on through a photo of sweet young Kurt into the chaos
of the central zone. Piled around the photo in the Mac’N Cheese are other ingestables
and cigs. Kurt would drink strawberry Quick to try and settle a painful stomach. the
Quick logo symmetrically mirrors the logo of Life opposite it: his life too-quick life was
memorialized in a special edition of the magazine.
On the right hand side the flow is maintained by the laces of the iconic Converse All
Stars repeated elsewhere. The ambiguous Chim Chim from Cobain’s toy collection
plays manic cymbals in front of the Satsop cooling towers and over Grohl’s drums:
“Chaka” appears on his bass drum in the first big MTV video: that has its own story. The
busted guitar evokes the violent conclusion of many performances. Distortion pedal
knobs morph into clear-cut stumps moving up toward Screaming Trees a contemporary
band of friends to Nirvana. A funky Grammy award floats over a harbor mill and ridgetop
radio tower. The gaudy Stargazer lilly was Kurt’s favorite flower and completes a pile of
organic shapes under the Nirvana logo designed by Cobain.
The large central circle reprises the historical structure of the building. There was a
round medallion set there in the original masonry. This curve creates the golden arc of
Nirvana. This also suggests the form of a vinyl record. The label is a deep void in which
a relatively small representation of Cobain turns his back on us and faces the audience
and blinding stage lights. On the other side of Kurt is the dark hole at the center of
everything. Allusions to the late Cobain abound while we avoid direct representations>
We feel his presence through his absence.
We are essentially missing Cobain – the presence of his absence. Flanking the center
are large portraits of Novoselic and Grohl. The sequence of brightly colored profiles
leading up to the portrait of Grohl is a nod to the previous drummers of Nirvana named
above. Stage lights shimmer on either side.
Below are the wanting hands of adulation. Helping hands support the crowd surfer as
the martyr Saint Sebastian (google some of those Renaissance paintings) with flames
and drumsticks as the arrows of his torture. The figures float above the sharp silhouette
of a tuttle-toothed saw – the so called “misery whip” of early Harbor loggers. The tooth
pattern was designed for the western softwoods. The saw makes its own music and
represents the dark and ever present dangers of the world of work. The proximity to the
blade of the naked baby makes you shudder at the vulnerability of everything that really
Left of center two expressive hands grip a microphone. They address the empty
landscape. The voice comes from that place. A flat and pretty MTV logo introduces a
chaotic crush of text and imagery. Beyond the boundary of a family photograph the
anonymous young musician kneels and turns inward. He does not not see the logger,
the rain the ridgetop clearcuts, the log truck, nor the Chehalis River gill-netters. His
clumsy hands and impossible headstock yield sweet petals of musical color that fall
nonetheless from the grey surrounding landscape. To me this is the crux of the
statement: the efficacy of art is not in its technical refinement but in its feeling. Cobain’s
guitar leads represent the death of the fancy guitar solo – they are as close to pure
feeling as you can get – highly intentional and yet unmediated by artifice, facility and
cleverness. …….and the essence of it all emerged in anonymity from a pathological
introversion encouraged by the brutalities of his life here.
The floating baby and money, of course, is signal imagery from the album cover of
Nevermind. The Nevermind Baby dematerializes as it reaches towards the money – Not
just as the photo from the cover but as that album in particular exploded in popularity
and yet remained tragic for Kurt—it’s the turning point at which his art for him became
mainstream and commercial.
In Utero and heartbreaking romance are suggested by the heart-shaped box. Other
albums are named throughout on the amp and guitar necks. Self-proclaimed town
curmudgeon Tori Kovac courageously stands with a public statement, as is his wont.
This sign, (not one of his own provocative original inventions) refers not only to the
posthumous Nirvana album but to Cobain Landing a site in his own Aberdeen
neighborhood that Tori helped make with his own hands.
Music industry logos punctuate the space on the right dominated by the kind of wood
utility pole that typifies our streets. Below, the childhood home and hair salon of
Novoselic’s mother morphs into the accordion that was his first instrument. To the left a
slim young Krist plays his distinctively low hanging bass guitar.
Finally, the entire length of the mural surface is “defaced”. It has been tagged by the
BlackFlag stencil once abounding in the alleys, graffitied with the spray-painted anarchy
symbol, illusionistically taped over with a concert poster, and the drum kicked with a
military boot-print. The spray painted safety-yellow sign This Family is Supported by
Timber Dollars was featured on many Harbor homes and businesses during the hard
times of the late eighties and early nineties. Hard times.
Thank you Nirvana.
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