Pride of a city
February 21, 2014
By Christina Corrales-Toy
Artist’s memory lives on in his many murals
Oregon-based muralist Larry Kangas was a one-man show with a paintbrush.
He had the innate ability to tell the story of a community with paint, ladders, a large blank wall and an unrivaled imagination.
Kangas died of cancer Nov. 25, 2013, but his memory lives on in the more than 1,000 murals he crafted across the Pacific Northwest, a few of which grace Issaquah walls.
“Larry never had any children. He was a great uncle for many kids, but he called his murals his kids, his legacy,” said Sandy Kangas, Larry’s wife.
Kangas’ murals are admired by city passers-by every day, whether they knew him or not.
When you visit the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, dine at the Issaquah Cafe, travel on East Sunset Way or drive by Darigold on Front Street, you are in the midst of a Kangas original.
Murals in Issaquah
It wasn’t easy bringing the idea of murals to the city, according to former Issaquah Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Suther.
Suther had to work with city administration to establish a mural policy and then craft an inventory of all eligible Issaquah walls. She had to learn about preservation, raise money for an artist and decide what part of the community’s vast history deserved artistic depiction.
The city settled on a wall of the Darigold plant as the first mural, in 1995, and quickly began interviewing artists for the job of telling the story of Issaquah’s dairy-farming history.
Kangas’ willingness to learn about the city and get every detail right made him an easy choice, Suther said.
Where to go
“He brought a great wealth of sensitivity to the community, as though he were living here,” she said. “He was very interested in having the outcome be the pride of the city.”
The result was a vast, physical tribute to a “century of dairying in Issaquah.” The artwork, completed by Kangas and two other artists, is one of Sandy Kangas’ favorites, she said.
Dave Waggoner, a longtime Issaquah resident and Kangas’ friend, said he drives by the Darigold mural nearly every day, and it reminds him of what Issaquah used to be.
“The murals speak to me, especially that Darigold mural, because I was a little boy growing up on a farm and I saw that Darigold truck come out every day,” he said. “When I look at that, it reminds me of the old Issaquah that I loved then and still love today.”
Telling Issaquah’s story
Kangas returned to the city in 1996 when he was commissioned to transform a boring water tower at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery into a scenic depiction of the Issaquah Creek that flows through it.
It literally brings to life the salmon habitat, featuring the creek, its wildlife and the lifecycle of a salmon.
Norb Ziegler, a volunteer at the hatchery, estimates hundreds of thousands — between Salmon Days Festival attendees and the thousands of students that visit annually — have seen the mural.
“It’s really become a teaching tool for the community,” Ziegler said. “It picks up on our message that we need to keep the salmon coming home.”
In 1997, Kangas added a touch of history to a wall on East Sunset Way, across the street from what is now Issaquah City Hall. That piece honors Issaquah’s logging past.
“I can almost hold up a picture of my dad when he was really young, doing that logging, and it matches perfectly to the mural,” Waggoner said.
In 1999, Kangas adorned the inside walls of Issaquah Cafe with murals depicting Issaquah’s country-living past.W
More than 10 years later, he came back in 2013 to paint the backdrop of the hatchery’s new aquarium.
The underwater scene of Issaquah Creek was one of Kangas’ last works before he died.
“Both of his murals at the hatchery are beautiful depictions of the natural habitat, and I think people really find that they learn a lot about salmon just by looking at his artwork,” said Jane Kuechle, executive director of the Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery.
Kangas and his artworks mean so much to the community that friends are working to organize an official “Larry Kangas Day” in the city to honor him.
“Those murals are a wonderful asset to the city in that they help us understand the history of our town, and they’re so beautifully done,” Ziegler said. “They tell the historical story of Issaquah.”
Waggoner agreed, adding that it’s nearly impossible to not feel something when looking at any of Kangas’ murals.
“He left that historical stamp on Issaquah and I think people who see the murals are just touched by them,” he said.
‘He loved what he did’
Issaquah would go on to hold a special place in Kangas’ heart, bringing him back again and again.
“He just really fell for Issaquah and its history,” Waggoner said.
History was always a subject of interest for the longtime artist, Sandy Kangas said — that’s why he loved so much creating pieces that depicted a community’s past.
“A lot of times, that’s all that’s left in a little community, is just the history,” she said.
Kangas received an art degree at the University of Massachusetts and also served as a navigator in the U.S. Air Force.
He started working on canvases straight out of art school, Sandy Kangas said. It wasn’t until he was asked to decorate the windows of a car dealership, in the 1980s, that he began working on large-scale murals.
Kangas was always a one-man crew, taking on big, physically demanding pieces without an assistant. He took pride in his work and the stamp he was leaving on communities, Sandy Kangas said.
“He loved what he did, and he lived it with passion and humor,” she said. “He didn’t let anything hold him back from doing what he loved.”