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Color me Spokane: Artist Matt Smith brings a taste of the river to Stevens Street underpass

November 4, 2018 GMT

After a few years of traveling through tropical and equatorial regions in search of color, local artist Matt Smith has returned home to share a little of what he found during his adventures.

“There’s a lot of vibrancy in their artwork that mimics the ecology of the place,” Smith said. “It’s very shaky and elaborate and repetitious and bright, vivid. I wanted to bring some of that feeling into Spokane, this place that’s sort of on the cusp and bubbling into something buzzing and alive. It’s bringing those poppy, alive colors in so that when people go by they feel that vibrancy.”

Chosen by Spokane Arts from a dozen project applicants, Smith’s ecologically focused mural now covers the walls of the Stevens Street BNSF underpass in downtown. The mural depicts a series of vibrantly colored fish with various pops of color interpolated throughout. Smith was inspired by the Spokane River, which he feels is underappreciated.

“People need to respect the river,” Smith said.

His whole creative concept developed out of an idea of the river as “the lifeblood of the city.” For that reason, Smith chose to paint these fish, a fusion of several different species, swimming against traffic. “It produces a real effect as you’re going in and they’re all pointed towards the river,” Smith said.

Smith’s creative process is very fluid. After organizing a general plan, whiting out the wall panels and painting a few vague outlines, the fish seemed to grow out of nothing as he went along.

“I’ll paint a line and (work) off the last line; it’s very reactionary,” Smith said. “It’s kind of like raking a zen garden but it’s all inside a fish shape off the top of my head.”

Smith has been a dedicated artist for years and has only recently turned to mural work. This was his first project but he has no plans for stopping.

“I thought this would be a good place to leave my first mark and plant a seed,” Smith said.

Working in the underpass offered quite a few learning experiences, but after a month adjusting to the distracting environment and a great deal of positive feedback from passers-by, Smith was able to bring a little of that tropical vibrancy into what had been a dark and sometimes unfriendly place.

“It was actually really cool to meet some of the guys that live down there,” Smith said. “One guy has slept under that bridge for seven years. He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met.” The man Smith met offered to try to watch over the mural while he was gone and to keep people from tagging it when he could. Luckily the completed murals are now protected with an anti-graffiti coat, courtesy of Spokane Arts.

“People have a real misconception of who is doing that stuff.” Smith explained that high school age kids would tag the mural at intervals, forcing him to backtrack every day or so to cover the unwelcome additions before continuing with his work.

“There were needles down there sometimes,” Smith said. “But that’s the whole point of this: to bring more of a variety of people so that it’s not just a hideaway.”