The hero’s journey

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on Dec. 4th, 2013
Subject: Ryan Henry Ward

Ryan Henry Ward has painted 150 murals throughout North Seattle. In a solo show, he explores superstars of the working class

Like this? Share it!

Earlier this fall, Seattle painter and muralist Ryan Henry Ward got a visit from the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Because Zapata died almost a hundred years ago, Ward knows that might sound implausible. Even if he were alive, how would Zapata have known to find Ward in Ballard, in a small artist studio tucked inside a cavernous industrial warehouse?

But Ward, 38, had just finished a painting of Zapata, portraying him with his handlebar mustache and oversized sombrero, when the revolutionary came to Ward in a vision. Zapata acknowledged gratitude at being the subject of a portrait. Then in a flash — he disappeared.

Ward, whose magically surreal murals can be found throughout North Seattle, said he felt blessed by the experience. Many people, he suggested, have been conditioned to believe visitations by the deceased are preposterous or that otherworldly realms are unreal. Seated on a secondhand couch in his unheated studio, his dog Merlin curled up nearby, Ward conceded that Zapata’s visit might have been a figment of his mind.

“Or maybe it really happened,” he said.

Lately, there have been a lot of visitors to Ward’s studio. The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo stopped by. Henry David Thoreau showed up, the American tax resistor who extoled a simple life close to nature in his book “Walden.” So too Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian leader known for his practice of nonviolent disobedience. Even Ward’s deceased brother, Brandon, made an appearance.

Portraits of all of these people will be included in Ward’s upcoming solo exhibition “Working Class Hero,” on Saturday, Dec. 7 at the furniture store Couch, 5423 Ballard Ave. NW. Ward will display 100 paintings, comprised of portraits and other work. While the exhibit incorporates social justice pioneers, some of the paintings portray fictional characters, such as Bilbo Baggins from “The Hobbit” and Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human officer on “Star Trek.” Nearly every piece will be for sale.

It doesn’t bother Ward that the exhibit places portraits of real people alongside those of imaginary creatures, like a smiling Sasquatch. After all, he wants to create work young people will enjoy, he said. The belief that art should speak to young people infuses the spirit of Ward’s colorful murals, which he signs with his middle name, “henry.” In the past five years, he estimates he’s painted 150 murals around Seattle.

He said he also wants his art to convey a message: “To maybe help people that are wealthy in Seattle understand how their actions impact someone in poverty in Calcutta.” The Indian metropolis is home to the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center; a portrait of Mother Teresa is featured in the upcoming show.

As for the exhibit’s title, “Working Class Hero,” it comes from a song by John Lennon, which Ward played for inspiration, listening to it on repeat for hours. (Yes, there will be a portrait of Lennon, too.) The lyrics, punctuated by the minor-chord lament of an acoustic guitar, speak of the struggle of staying true to working-class roots:

“When they’ve tortured and scared you for 20-odd years/

Then they expect you to pick a career/

When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear/

A working class hero is something to be.”

Working on the exhibition has produced a time machine of sorts for Ward, merging his past with his present.

“I’m revisiting a lot of experiences from my life,” Ward said.

O, brothers, where art thou?

Ward grew up outside of Bozeman, Mont., the middle child of three boys. His dad worked as a welder and his mom pulled shifts as a waitress. His family lived a simple life.

Around the time he was 10, the family relocated to Washington, living in multiple cities. Ward and his older brother, Brandon, played in a band called Green Mountain Boys. Oftentimes, Brandon wrote lyrics and took care of lead vocals, but once, another bandmate sang Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.”

“It’s kind of left this impression in my mind ever since,” Ward said.

Brandon was also leaving an impression on Ward. Separated in age by 18 months, the pair lived together in Bellingham, where Ward attended Fairhaven College. Brandon became Ward’s unofficial art teacher, instructing him in color theory and composition in painting. The brothers grew close.

Ward said that Brandon was a musician and painter who, while working on farms or construction sites, wanted to raise the consciousness of humanity. Then Brandon shifted his direction somewhat and attended massage school to achieve a new goal: “He wanted to heal people.”

Doctors, unfortunately, could not heal Brandon. He had a heart disease, one that caused his aorta to continually enlarge as he grew older. In 1999, at the age of 25, Brandon died of a heart attack.

Ward was devastated.

Ward’s younger brother, Andy, also lived with him. A year after Brandon’s death, Ward and Andy ventured to Thailand, Nepal, India. They visited Calcutta and volunteered at the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center. After four months, Ward and his younger brother came home. Then Ward took another solo trip overseas, this time to Southern Africa and Southeast Asia.

Back in Washington, Ward began a career in social work. He served as a recreational therapist for children with psychological and emotional disorders, using art therapy. When that position ended, he worked in AIDS hospice, a job he loved. When that job didn’t pay the rent, he became a care provider for developmentally disabled people.

“Then I got burned out,” Ward said.

He started a landscape and construction business with Andy, building retaining walls and installing sprinkler systems. The work paid well, so when Andy bought a four-wheeler, Ward emulated him and purchased his own. But whereas his brother’s vehicle was small and lightweight, Ward bought the biggest four-wheeler on the market. It weighed almost half a ton.

Four-wheeling became a form of recreation. One evening in February 2007, in the sand dunes near Moses Lake, Andy and some friends took a night ride in their four-wheelers. Ward joined in.

The five of them raced over dunes that dipped and dived for 3,000 acres. Ward knew his brother and his friends’ lighter vehicles were swift, so he pushed his heavier vehicle to keep up. The others surged into the night. Unable to see well in the darkness, Ward steered his four-wheeler in the direction of their taillights — and careened over a cliff.

Ward sailed over the handlebars. He crashed into the sand below. The four-wheeler landed on his back. The vehicle’s roll-bar struck his helmet. His head ricocheted inside. He lay pinned under nearly a half-ton of rubber and metal.

As he watched four pairs of taillights head off in the distance, Ward screamed for help. The other four-wheelers sped on. He screamed louder. The tailights became faint. Finally, they disappeared.

Ward yelled into the night. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Then it struck him:

“I realized they weren’t coming back.”

Lost and found

Ward struggled beneath the four-wheeler, but he couldn’t move. He didn’t experience any physical pain from the vehicle on top of him. Or if he did, his mind couldn’t process it. But he could feel the vehicle pushing him deeper into the sand.

His breathing grew labored. Each inhale became shorter. Ward felt his life being crushed out of him. And he could smell gasoline.

Ward went into panic mode. His mind focused on an unbelievable thought: “Oh, my God, I’m gonna die under here.”

As if he were viewing a cinematic montage, Ward saw his life pass before him. It struck him as funny that he’d spent so much time worrying about life, when, suddenly so close to death, he realized none of the worrying mattered.

“I had this cosmic opening,” he said. “I saw the [celestial] spheres and the cosmic universe.”

Ward gave in. He accepted his own imminent death.

“Then this 16-year-old kid jumped out of a pickup and threw the four-wheeler off of me,” he said.

The teen had been driving in the dunes. He was so skinny, Ward couldn’t figure out how he lifted the four-wheeler. Possibly an adrenaline rush. But Ward was free. Soon after, Ward’s brother and his friends arrived. Ward had been trapped for 30 minutes.

Even though he could stand and walk, he knew he’d suffered severe injuries. He considered going to the emergency room, but ruled it out. “I didn’t have health insurance and didn’t think I could afford to go,” he said.

Instead, he recuperated at home. He suffered from amnesia. Excruciating back pain relegated him to bed rest, he said, so he contacted friends to acquire painkillers. Since Ward couldn’t sit or stand for long periods, he was unable to hold down a job. All he could do was lie in bed, where he found that even with the pain, he could paint.

“It was the only thing I could think of doing that could make money,” he said.

Six months after the accident, he sought medical attention. X-rays and MRIs revealed the four-wheeler had crushed a disc between two lumbar vertebrae while injuring other discs. But his body had been healing.

Soon after the test results, he felt strong enough to work and, living outside Seattle, he got another care provider job. He took his young client swimming one day and jumped in the pool with him. The impact of hitting the water reinjured Ward’s back.

Because the injury happened on the job, Labor & Industries, the state’s workplace safety organization, covered his health care. To combat the pain of the injury, a doctor wrote Ward a prescription: 60 milligrams of morphine a day.

“When I was on it, it was fine,” Ward said.

But while the pain persisted, the prescription ran out. When Ward asked for refills, his doctor advised him to wean himself from pills. He couldn’t. Instead, he bought painkillers off the street.

During this time, Ward pursued his artwork. He got his first show at The Orange Spot, a now-defunct art gallery in Ballard. He bought a Chevy truck for $400, and a friend gave him a camper. He hauled the camper near Gasworks Park and lived inside. He started Dumpster diving and fixed communal meals in the park.

“Once I moved into the neighborhood,” he said, “people were knocking on my camper door wanting to get to know me, wanting me to be part of that community.”

After the show, he struck a deal with The Orange Spot owner, who priced Ward’s pieces under $100. For more than a year, the gallery sold his artwork, sometimes three pieces a week. Ward earned enough to buy art supplies and dog food for Merlin.

When the recession shuttered the gallery, Ward struck another deal, this time with the owner of the Triangle Lounge: Ward would paint over the graffiti-covered exterior in exchange for free food. He got other mural gigs by knocking on doors.

“I think I did 26 murals before I got paid,” he said.

All the while, he was still addicted to painkillers. The truck and camper got towed. He couldn’t afford to pay the tickets and tow fee, so he stayed with his parents for a while. Then he saved enough to buy a van. Unable to afford to buy more drugs on the street, he sold the van for heroin. He lived out of his backpack: “In my mind I’d rationalized it all as romantic,” he said.

As he gained attention for murals populated with unicorns and mermaids and gnomes and crows, Ward battled addiction and slept in parks. Once, to look presentable for a TV interview, he bought a pair of pants at Fred Meyer. The next day he returned them for the cash because he needed the money.

The murals and artwork earned him money — not a lot, but enough — and he was able to rent a West Seattle apartment. And he achieved a goal: He kicked his heroin habit. Now, he’s been sober 20 months.

“It’s been quite a journey,” Ward said.

The shining

Back in his Ballard art studio, Ward perched on the lip of a couch. Jugs of acrylic paint covered a nearby table, and an empty easel stood under a bright light. It was while painting canvases on the easel that he received visits from Zapata and some of the others subjects in “Working Class Hero.” The visitation that most affected him occurred with his deceased brother Brandon.

“I spent the whole day bawling my head off,” Ward said.

Along with providing access to other realms, art, Ward said, can bring people together. He’ll put this second belief to practice later this month, when he opens a space in the Greenwood Collective that he’ll call the Quadrupus Gallery. The gallery will showcase an artist from another city, say Milwaukee, in exchange for a Seattle artist showing work in the companion city.

As for the term Quadrupus, it’s a name Ward bestowed on a being he created and painted on the side of his van.

“It’s like an octopus, but with four legs,” he said.

Recently, Ward gave up his West Seattle apartment. Like Thoreau, one of his heroes, Ward wanted a simpler life. Now he lives in the van and sleeps inside on a Tempur-Pedic mattress. He manages his back pain through walking and meditation.

Two weeks before “Working Class Hero” was scheduled to open, Ward still had more portraits to complete. He trusted his intuition would guide him to future subjects. Whether they’re imaginary or real doesn’t matter to him.

What is more important, Ward said, is the sense of gratitude he feels when people and beings come to him during the artistic process. The subjects express themselves through his paintbrush, so when he does a portrait of Gandhi, his benevolent nature permeates the portrait. He said he wants people to experience the nature of Gandhi or Lennon or Spock or Zapata when they see the painting.

“If the spirit of that person didn’t shine through to me,” Ward said, “how can it shine through to the audience?”

page 1 of 1 pages