Muralist leaves his mark on fitness center
Wearing cargo pants with deep, low-hanging pockets and a light blue t-shirt speckled with paint stains, Dan Cohen inspects his work. Like so many of his paintings over the past 20 years, Cohen meticulously irons out every detail – each brushstroke bringing the renovated fitness center on Haworth Avenue closer to completion.
Cohen, 43, of Portland, was selected by the Chehalem Park & Recreation District to paint a mural surrounding the elevated running track in the new fitness center. He and two assistants have been working on the project over the past few weeks, aiming to be done before the fitness center's targeted opening in mid-January.
His desire for a narrative element to the mural – which spans three walls and cuts across multiple pillars – made his application stand out to CPRD, according to public information director Kat Ricker.
"He was the only applicant that gave us a narrative to guide the mural," Ricker said. "We asked for the Oregon landscape with people doing fitness-related things, and he went a step further."
Cohen chose "The Hero's Journey" by Joseph Campbell as the framework for his narrative. The monomythic tale is universal in multiple cultures, he said, and tells the story of a hero overcoming adversity with plenty of trials and tribulations along the way. George Lucas used the story to help build his narrative for "Star Wars," as have many other artists, writers and filmmakers over the past few decades.
Sports provided a unique and applicable filter through which Cohen could tell this story.
"As much as it's used, it still somehow resonates on a deeper level for people," he said. "I tend to gravitate toward mythology and fantastical elements, and so when I was asked to do this, I built the concept around that. I thought it would be kind of cool to do 'The Hero's Journey,' but with sports metaphors."
Cohen's mural begins at the top of the stairs leading to the track and winds clockwise around the building. It starts with a kind of call to adventure, usually involving a mentor that introduces the athlete to a sport or activity. As you move along the first of three walls, athletes train and eventually reach their first "threshold" – a grand victory that establishes them in their sport.
The second wall begins with the hero entering the "other world," facing obstacles and enemies by themselves and with the help of others. This portion of the story is represented by a soccer team, someone dunking a basketball and a winter athlete standing in victory at the top of a mountain.
As the story reaches its climax, resolution is sought and achieved on the third wall. The hero athlete finds ways to shed their ego and begin giving back to the sport that gave them glory, as well as the community where they started their journey. A tennis coach instructing a little girl is followed by a group of people shooting arrows together at the end of the mural.
Cohen, who grew up in Milwaukee, Wisc., and moved to Portland when he graduated from an art school in Minnesota, said he prefers projects like this mural to advertising work he's done in the past. While the bulk of his artistic income is derived from advertising pieces, he said the opportunity to be creative and leave an impact on a community is special.
"I'd much rather be doing stuff like this," Cohen said. "It's permanent, it means something and it matters to a community. That's kind of the goal."