On a recent Sunday afternoon, Eli Tail paints a wall in Tacoma’s historic Brewery District. An enormous swath of blue and gold, the wall on the 7 Seas Brewing building is the only bright spot in a dusty alley of concrete blocks and old railroad tracks.
This mural-in-progress stands out for two reasons: ten Native American artists, including Tail, who is a Northern Cheyenne filmmaker, are helping paint it; and the mural’s design puts Native stories squarely in the spotlight.
“You don’t hear a lot of Native American voices in public art,” says Tail, taking a break from painting atop a hydraulic lift 15 feet in the air. “This is a good first step.”
“After a long history of invasion and appropriation…this is a healing opportunity, to reach out to the Native community and show that the City is interested in working with them and supporting them,” said Asia Tail, who is Cherokee and a program coordinator with the City of Tacoma’s Office of Arts & Cultural Vitality. She also happens to be Eli Tail’s cousin.
The mural is one of four newly commissioned Tacoma public art pieces to be erected along the Prairie Line Trail, a one-mile linear park that will stretch along the old Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad from the Brewery District to the waterfront. One-third of the trail is already finished — a paved path with grasses and sculptures that threads through the University of Washington, Tacoma campus. Construction has begun on a section of the trail just outside the Tacoma Art Museum that will allow pedestrians and cyclists to access the Thea Foss waterway.
The 7 Seas mural will breathe color into a rundown alley. “It’s good giving back to the community,” says Eli Tail, working alongside lead artists Esteban Camacho Steffensen and Jessilyn Brinkerhoff. Tail, in jeans and an old shirt, has only painted on canvas before. The mural project is teaching her a lot of new techniques.
It’s also creating more partnerships between the city and artists of color, an initiative that began with a program last summer that trained 10 young artists of color on a People’s Community Center mural in the city’s historic Hilltop neighborhood.
The 7 Seas mural will cover 19,200 square feet, reach 50 feet high and take six 50-hour weeks to complete.
Its visual story weaves past, present and future through the lens of a cedar tree. “Working Forward, Weaving Anew” begins with a Puyallup woman weaving a clam basket in a twill pattern; a cedar forest is in the background. As the mural moves right, the trees are violently felled by a logging saw, a fist emerges from the log as symbol of destruction and invasion. From the logs emerges a door, chiseled by a European carpenter, its Polish design inspired by the ornate old doors found in Tacoma’s downtown.
“This site used to be the Jobbers’ District, where people would come for work in the 1800s,” says Brinkerhoff, one of the lead artists. She and Steffensen spent six months researching with the Tacoma Historical Society and the Puyallup tribe to come up with the mural’s design.
The mural’s story continues with painted wheat, referencing the Brewery District. A young multiracial girl playfully weaves artwork made from cedar, wheat, flowers and even railroad ties. Mount Rainier – Mount Tahoma – looms overhead.
“I like the backstory,” Eli Tail says. “It kind of belongs here.”