Brian Mittge Commentary: Remembering the ‘Twelve Labors of Hercules’ Artist

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Michael Spafford, the artist whose “Twelve Labors of Hercules” murals found a home at Centralia College after they were deemed too controversial for the state Capitol, has died.

The Seattle artist died last Saturday of lung cancer at age 86, The Seattle Times reports.

It’s been 40 years since members of the state Legislature were shocked out of their seats when Spafford’s stark black and white murals were unveiled in the ornate House chambers in 1981.

Some observers found the juxtaposition between the modernist art and the classical marble surroundings too jarring. Others were disturbed by the suggestion of sexual violence in the scenes.

What followed became a legendary tale of political indecision and bureaucratic paralysis.

The giant murals were covered up for years with drapes, then uncovered, then finally taken down and put into storage.

Sensing an opportunity, Centralia College leaders put in a request for the murals. The state, thrilled that someone would take this white elephant off their hands, said be our guest.

Spafford said not so fast.

He had designed the murals with the state Capitol in mind, and if they weren’t going to go there, he wanted them destroyed.

It took a long legal fight, but Centralia College finally got the murals in 2003.

The college actually had been preparing for years to take custody of not only the Spafford murals, but also a sort of sister set of murals that had also been yanked from the Senate chambers.

These murals, by painter Alden Mason, didn’t set off the sort of content bells that the violent Hercules did. They were simply too abstract.

Centralia College offered a place for them in the campus library. Then, having taken custody of the revoked Senate paintings, the college successfully made the case for the House murals to hang in Washington Hall’s performance venue. In fact, the college designed the space especially for them.

Both set of paintings hang at the college to this day. Technically they’re on loan from the state, but it’s hard to see the Legislature ever asking for them back.

For his part, Spafford was one of the Northwest’s most acclaimed artists. He often delved into Greek mythology for his artwork, which he described as “assertive, graphic and confrontational.”

One of his pieces, five giant panels showing the fall of Icarus (who famously flew too close to the sun, melting the wax holding his wings into place) had been installed on the side of an elevator shaft in the Kingdome.

That art was removed before the Kingdome was imploded in 2000. Spafford’s mammoth art panels were eventually re-installed on the side of a downtown parking garage.

Spafford remained active until his death, often collaborating with his son Mafford, a photographer.

“My father was in our house, working, right up to the week before he died,” said Mafford Spafford.

For Lewis County, Spafford’s greatest collaboration was one he actively fought, but that brought some of the state’s most infamous artwork to a permanent home at Centralia College.

 

Showing Love to Students

Readers might remember the group of parents who held up signs of support for W.F. West High School students earlier this school year after two teenagers committed suicide.

One of those parents let me know that a new group at W.F. West, the Mental Health Advocate Club, is asking the community for donations to give out to students who might need a show of care on Valentine’s Day and beyond.

Community members are invited to drop off donations of nut-free candy bags (members of the club write inspirational, motivational notes on the candy to pass out to everyone at school),  artificial flowers, Playdough, model magic, craft supplies, scotch tape, $5 coffee/fast food cards or anything that you may think helpful.

Donations may be dropped off at the high school, addressed to the Mental Health Advocate Club.

 

Dad Joke of the Week

Here’s one I came up with for my kids. It got some laughs, so it’s now in my Dad Joke Hall of Fame.

“In hindsight, I regret whacking that guy on the head with my processed meat sandwich as he played his brass instrument. It was an erroneous, felonious, baloneyious, tromboneous  decision.”

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Brian Mittge’s column appears in The Chronicle each Saturday. He can be reached at brianmittge@hotmail.com.