McMenamins Muralist Myrna Yoder Goes Big

Myrna Yoder at the McMenamins Kennedy School in Portland. Photo by Andrea Lorimor

Lois, a gap-toothed first grader, with purple pig tails and cat-eye glasses, monitors the daily brewing of 1,488 pints of beer at the McMenamins Kennedy School.

The former Kennedy School student is the creation of artist Myrna Yoder, who recently painted Lois’ face on the brewery kettle. “I don’t even like beer,” Yoder laughs, “yet I have this history of beer running throughout my life. Even in college, I hooked and unloaded hops—a ‘hop house hooker.’”

Celebrating twenty years with the creators of Hammerhead and Ruby, Yoder is one of seven artists who enjoy an unusual and enviable job. Employed full time, and—like modern-day Michelangelos and Leonardos working for Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Julius II—they have a benefactor. “Mike McMenamin is our patron,” says Yoder. “But instead of the Catholic Church and illustrating the Bible, it’s Mike’s world.”

They call it “historic surrealism,” and it sometimes gives visitors the sense they’re wandering a corridor in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle, colorful characters nearly leaping out of their picture frames. “Our primary goal is to bring beauty and honor to the histories of each McMenamins property,” explains Yoder.

As “artist wrangler,” Yoder coordinates sessions where McMenamin and the artists pour over treasures mined by company historian, Tim Hills—photos, clippings, oral histories and blueprints. As Hills puts it, there are countless “pillars of society standing shoulder to shoulder with gloriously seedy charlatans”—train robbers, crime bosses, shanghai tunnel operators, Frankie (from Frankie and Johnny), film legends (Clark Gable and Rudolph Valentino), a black rabbit, even an occasional ghost.

“The interconnecting lines between the properties are staggering, just insane,” says Mike McMenamin. He explains how, in the 1920s, struggling actor Clark Gable took a job herding sheep past the Kennedy School to the nearby slaughter house, and also starred in a play at the old Masonic Temple in Northeast Portland, a future McMenamins hotel.

Yoder’s art hangs in all fifty-six properties, and includes giant wall murals, paintings, tiny pipe art and decorative railing orbs. “I started sneaking in some woodcuts too,” she says. “It’s the same process as print-making, but instead of transferring to paper, the wood block itself is the original piece of art.”

At the newly opened Crystal Hotel in Portland, McMenamin shows off a woodcut of indie girl band Sleater-Kinney during their final performance at the Crystal Ballroom. “Myrna is able to catch an instant in time—the energy, movement, exuberance and sadness of the last show. She just nails it,” says McMenamin.

Hills is impressed with Yoder’s ability to bring “beauty and dignity to people who aren’t so glamorous.” His favorite painting of Yoder’s is a moody portrait of Frankie Baker, a St. Louis woman acquitted of shooting Johnny, who the song reminds us “done her wrong.” Moving to Portland, she spent years fighting, unsuccessfully, for royalties from the song and movie her life inspired. Six months after she won the Urban League’s first Lifetime Achievement award, she moved into the county poor farm and died in 1952.

Those stories deeply move Yoder. “We’re working in a lot of buildings that were run-down, neglected, often with sad stories,” she says. “It’s like the artists are blessing each wall.”

Yoder’s own life is full of twists, turns and chance encounters that prepared her for McMenamins. “I’ve never really known quite where I was going next,” she admits. “Art doesn’t let you plan. It takes you to an unknown path.”

She grew up on two acres of fruit trees and gardens in Woodburn, in a family where, “if you had it, you made it.” Her father, a machinist, and mother, a home economics teacher, taught their four girls how to can and freeze food, sew and draw. “Even watching TV, everyone drew. I didn’t think I was special,” she says.

That changed at Oregon State University when a counselor overheard her trying to pick which area to concentrate in elementary education. “He told me, ‘If you like art, pick art, because what we really need now in our teachers is creativity,’” she recalls.

Yoder’s art professor, Marian Bowman, pushed her to major in art. “She’d walk by in class and just shake her head at me,” says Yoder. “On the last day she said, ‘I need to talk to you. You have a natural ability. If you don’t develop this now, in your forties and fifties, you’ll wonder what you could have done.’”

Yoder switched to fine arts. “I was sick to my stomach,” she recalls. “This decision was a real turning point for me.”

Another professor, impressed with Yoder’s print-making skills, persuaded her to enroll at Indiana University’s master of fine arts program. “It was a shock to my system,” she says. “They prided themselves on big, big prints and large, figurative, representational art.”

Those skills would soon be needed by a creative lodging empire in Oregon.

In the recessionary 1990s, newly graduated, and no teaching job in site, Yoder accepted an offer from an acquaintance managing McMenamins Raleigh Hills Pub: food, in return for drawing on the pub chalkboard.

Soon she was working for money, and joining a team of artists bringing life to the 150,000-square-foot, dilapidated poor farm in Troutdale. “Technically, it was the first time I did something for them, but it didn’t intimidate me because
I was used to working large.”

Many of the McMenamins properties offer a fascinating timeline of Yoder’s work: an enormous ceramic relief of two eccentric grannies watches over diners in the Power Station; a resident of the old Masonic Temple whose WWII combat pictures appeared in LIFE and Look magazines, sits life-size at the Grand Lodge in Forest Grove; a grinning giant jester from the Crystal Ballroom dances next to golfing nursing home patients from Edgefield. Yet, another painting at the Edgefield Power Station theater is an example of Yoder going rogue. “Occasionally I’m naughty and beg forgiveness,” she winks. A humbly dressed couple happily floats above the wind-swept property. But these characters aren’t historic. “This is an emotional painting,” she smiles. “It was after the way I perceive Edgefield—all joy, love and music.”

Now 50 and a successful artist, Yoder says she still reflects on her decision to pursue art. “I run into people who have regrets,” she notes. “That’s how it would have been for me. I would have walked into a gallery and wondered, ‘Could that have been me?’”

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