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Coast Art Bus: Driving discovery for kids

The old school bus, which brings art to kids along the central coast, gets a vibrant re-do and becomes a work of art itself.

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Artist Liza Mana Burns helps kids discover the secrets on the bus. Photo: Colin M. Park

The brass band played, the crowd stood, and the Oregon Coast Art Bus crept into view, a rolling mass of color on a rolling fog gray day. It was a deceptively simple debut, coming after months of tackling the logistics of taking the license plate-sized Celebrate Oregon! art and wrapping it around a full-sized bus. On Thursday at the Newport Performing Arts Center, those efforts culminated in a seamless afternoon of art, community and celebration.

“It was the perfect gathering,” Carrie Kikel, communications manager for the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Cultural Trust, said about Thursday’s rollout. “The art that was created is so stunning and accessible and vibrant. It’s so rewarding to know this artwork is really connecting people. It’s just priceless when you see the power of the artwork.”

The Oregon Coast Art Bus debuted a year ago this month as a used yellow school bus, its name announced in colored letters on sheets of white. If utilitarian in style, the classroom on wheels nonetheless came with a lofty mission — to bring art classes to kids in Lincoln County, nearly 1,000 square miles in size, and hours from any sizable metro area.

The effort to transform the bus itself into a work of art began last February, when the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts asked the Oregon Cultural Trust to consider wrapping the bus in Eugene artist Liza Mana Burns’ Celebrate Oregon! art. The Trust agreed, funding roughly three-quarters of the $11,000 cost to do the work. Then, Burns and the team at Xtreme Grafx in Albany went to work creating high-resolution photos of the art that would be expanded to the necessary scale and transferred to the bus.

“We wanted to be sure the wrap was as high-quality as possible,” Kikel said. “It was worth every moment of angst.”

The artwork includes 127 symbols representing different aspects of Oregon’s culture, history, heritage and arts. A link on the Cultural Trust’s website takes viewers to an interactive map of the symbols. Viewers hover their cursor over any of the symbols and information about the symbol appears. Hover over #7, a gray whale, and you’ll learn, among other things, that it is the most common whale spotted off the Oregon Coast, with some 18,000 migrating through our waters every year.

Burns said she wanted to pack the artwork with a “wide breadth of things.”

“It’s a discovery,” she said. “It’s a key for people so they can say, ‘All right, I want to learn more about what the heck is that thing right there?’ That’s the fun part for me about this piece. There’s a lot of layers of discovery to it. You get this chance to really deep dive into these little niche parts of Oregon culture, and the key lets you do that without overloading this one design.”

Art discovery was happening outside the bus, too. Photo: Colin M. Park
Scanning the art horizon. Photo: Colin M. Park

In addition to the Cultural Trust Celebrate Oregon! license plate, Burns’ artwork has been enlarged to mural size and installed in four airports: Rogue International-Medford Airport; FlyRedmond; Eugene Airport and PDX. There are plans for a fifth mural, though the location has not been made public.

The transformation of the bus exterior is just the start. Work now moves to the interior with the hope that future art classes can be held inside the bus when the notoriously wild coast weather makes outdoor classes unpleasant if not impossible.

“It can be particularly tricky some days to do something outside,” said Jason Holland, executive director of OCCA. “The goal is that it will be weather-protected, and we will be even more flexible with dates and the time of year we can go out with the bus.”

Classes are geared toward elementary-aged kids, but Holland noted that since the bus is generally invited to family events, parents and caregivers “end up sitting side by side with kiddos.” And while it’s been visiting Lincoln County sites, Holland hopes to see the mobile classroom’s range extend well beyond the coastal county, with not only visual arts projects but multi-disciplinary.

“It will be really fun for the bus to show up, and one time it’s a music class, another, a dance class – especially with this graphic now,” Holland said. “All these art supplies come out of the bus and it’s a pop-up art experience, but now to have it visual, really vibrant, makes quite an impact visually. This is really the heart of bringing the arts into the community and ensuring all have access to creative and fun arts experiences.”

The bus, from stem to stern. Photo: Colin M. Park

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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