Washougal students on mission to beautify their hometown

Local students, nonprofits partner on project to cover unsightly 'liquor' sign at Washougal Food Center with painting

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Washougal students work on a painting at Washougal High School in April 2021. The project is part of the Unite! Washougal community coalition's latest beautification project. (Contributed photo courtesy of Dani Allen)

The metal post that holds the marquee sign in the parking lot of the Washougal Food Center, at 1736 “E” St., has seen better days. Some of the black paint used to spell out the word “liquor” has peeled away, revealing chunks of the original surface and turning the letter “I” into a silver splotch.

“The liquor sign is in the middle of the community, and it’s not very nice looking and falling apart,” Amara Farah said. A senior at Washougal High, Farah felt compelled to beautify the prominent Washougal corner. “(I wanted to cover it with) a picture that’s going to positively represent Washougal and lift others up.”

Farah is now working in conjunction with the Unite! Washougal community coalition and the Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance, to create a Washougal-themed painting that will be erected on one side of the post later this spring.

“We were like, ‘This is a very popular part of town … and we should do something beautiful with it,” said Taylor Vincent, also a Washougal High senior and the project’s co-leader. “Instead of it being gray and dented, it will be colorful and wonderful. And I think it will catch people’s eyes and make them respond in a positive way.”

After talking with Unite! Washougal’s executive director, Margaret McCarthy, about her idea, Farah approached Washougal Food Center owner Jesse Singh, who approved of the project.

“We went in and said, ‘Hey, we’d be willing to replace your liquor sign with something that would positively impact Washougal. Here are some of the designs. Let us know if you want to change anything or if you have anything in mind,'” Farah said. “The first time we were there he seemed excited, but the more we kept showing up to show him what progress we were making, he seemed more and more on board with it, and that enthusiasm really started to come through.”

A group of middle- and high-school students have gathered every Monday and Friday afternoon in Washougal High School art teacher Rob Yee’s classroom for the past three months to work on the painting.

“The opportunities for youth to engage and own their community, and for us to partner with them, that’s what’s so exciting for me,” McCarthy said. “If I don’t like something about my environment, I can work with others and collaborate and have teamwork and value each other as we change it for the positive. That’s what community is all about, and hopefully what Unite! Washougal is all about — working together and learning from each other and making this a better place for us all to live.”

The picture will feature representations of the Columbia River and Mount Hood, and the phrase “You are enough.”

Farah, who has volunteered with Unite! Washougal for several years, said the students wanted to have a picture that would positively represent their hometown and also lift the spirits of people passing by.

“I think it’s nice to have something in the middle of our community that’s going to represent it in a positive way and hopefully give the store owner some more business,” Farah said.

The students are painting the picture on dibond, a form of aluminum composite panel.

“We’re painting a metal piece that’s the same size as the sign, and we’re going to screw it into the side,” said Jemtegaard Middle School art teacher Dani Allen. “It’s easier, because if we had to go to the parking lot, we’d have to have ladders, and we’d have to put out the drop cloth. In Mr. Yee’s room it’s so easy to clean up, and we don’t have to have any ladders because we can just move up and down the sign.”

The picture is just about finished and “looking great,” according to Vincent.

“I’m super pleased with the people we brought together,” said Vincent, who joined Unite! Washougal as a volunteer in 2020. “We always knew that if we could, we wanted to involve as many kids as we can, because art is made for everyone. I love that we have something physical to embody something that we’re really passionate about. It’s been a really wonderful experience.”

The project aligns perfectly with Unite! Washougal’s goal of improving the lives of local youth by promoting healthy choices, McCarthy said.

The Unite! Washougal director has been working with local business owners as part of Washington’s “Let’s Draw the Line Between Youth and Alcohol” campaign to alter the placement of their alcohol and tobacco products. She said that “environmental design and influences” such as the Washougal Food Center’s liquor sign can impact the decisions of young people.

“When you go into a store and you have 20 different vape pens as an option, your environment affects your choices even if you don’t realize it,” McCarthy said. “We have this 8-foot liquor sign in our community. What does that do to the environment of our community, and how does it affect our youth? We’re not trying to be prohibitionists. We’re not trying to make it so people can’t make a living. We just want our youths’ brains to grow and for them to have the best opportunity to do all of the amazing things they can do.”

The group’s work won’t be finished when the picture is unveiled, however. The leaders hope to keep the effort going for as long as possible.

“(The post) is two-sided, so we’re planning on doing the other side,” Vincent said. “We haven’t started planning that yet, but that would be the first step. There’s lots of other small businesses in Washougal with signs, and we’re thinking that (we could) continue to partner with WACA or maybe another organization and keep beautifying the community. This could be a thing for generations if kids want to continue it.”