Oregon Gallery: McMenamins Artists

Various art pieces by Olivia Behm and Eona Skeltor await to be taken to their new homes in Kalama, WA

McMenamins artists contribute to Oregon’s creative legacy

written by Catie Joyce-Bulay

Photo Gallery by Peter Mahar
Walking down the halls of a McMenamins hotel or restaurant is a chance to meet the characters who occupied the building’s past. Visit with the teachers of St. Francis School or the residents of Edgefield’s poor farm and, later, nursing home. Like ghosts, they pop up in unexpected places—but they’re usually smiling, friendly ghosts.

Myrna Yoder, lead artist (though she doesn’t like the term) to a handful of full-time artists McMenamins employs, is especially adept at making these figures come to life. Guests eavesdrop on gossiping grandmothers over tea at Edgefield’s Powerhouse Station Restaurant, and laugh at the jokes of school children in the murals she’s painted at Kennedy School.

Work by McMenamins artist Myrna Yoder

“I do develop a connection to the characters I paint,” said Yoder, who has worked for the company since 1991. “After all, I spend so much time with them that they become companions in creating the painting. I often like to paint the people in a painting first and then let the rest of the painting develop around them.”

Yoder, who has an MFA in print-making, honed her painting skills on the job. “I wasn’t a very good painter when I started out,” she said. “I was really good at drawing … but I didn’t mix colors, I just used the colors right out of the tube.” She began with the company by drawing a picture on the chalkboard beer menu of Raleigh Hills Pub, where a friend worked, in exchange for a meal.

The history of the McMenamins locations comes to life with a dose of whimsy and magic, and, as Yoder describes it, a sense of joyfulness. This is a style the artists, many of whom have worked together for twenty-five years, have cultivated over the years. Co-owner Mike McMenamin guides the design of each new location. “He likes the artwork to speak to the history of the place and surrounding area—and McMenamins’ history, and throw in music influences. We call it historical surrealism because we make all these different elements tie in.”

This gives the artwork in all of the buildings a distinct McMenamins style, with plenty of room for the artists to use their own creativity. “If you look closer, you start to see the differences between everybody’s style. Every artist is a distinctive voice.”

Lyle Hehn’s voice is a quirky and playful mix of fanciful and historical, like his Gearhart Hotel painting of a sixteenth-century Spanish ship reaching Oregon’s shores manned by a mini-golf playing Hammerhead and met by a young Clatsop flautist and rocks that look like dice.

“The images are supposed to be fun to look at, which means we have to have at least a little fun making them,” said Hehn, an artist with training in graphics and technical drawing. Hehn, who has worked as a McMenamins artist for thirty years, collaborates with the marketing department’s graphic artists to design many of the graphics, from coasters to beer labels to concert posters. He’s also created many of the McMenamins characters, like Hammerhead and Ruby the Witch. In one of his paintings, Ruby is a robot built by residents of Edgefield’s poor house to christen their wooden model replica of the USS Oregon on its maiden voyage during a basement flood, where the actual woodshop was located (and often flooded).
The artists work closely with the history department, headed by historian Tim Hills. The history staff researches the building’s past and provides that information along with topics to the artists, Yoder said. From there, each artist has a different approach to the work, and often continues to research a subject.

“My favorite thing about working as a McMenamins artist is that I’m always learning,” said Cleo Hehn, Lyle’s niece, who has been with McMenamins for three years. “When the history department sends me research about my next painting, I get to learn about local history and read new books.”

Cleo Hehn also enjoys the new technical skills she learns on the job. “Every painting presents its own artistic challenges, and I get to develop new techniques,” she said.

Art by McMenamins artist Cleo Hehn

When she has finished researching, she begins with a thumbnail sketch, then works up a larger, more detailed sketch to see how her ideas play out. “I often draw two or three very different compositions to make sure I have the best plan for the topic,” she said. Once she’s finished a painting, she likes to work on a different project for a day or two, then return to it with fresh eyes. She also seeks feedback from the other artists, like her mentor Jenny Joyce.

Art by McMenamins artist Jenny Joyce

Joyce began as a contracting artist for Edgefield in 1993, while working as an artist in the schools. She loves the culture created by a team of artists and the opportunity to improve her skills every day while earning a living. She keeps an active personal studio as well, and her energetic oil-on-canvas abstracts are quite different from her illustrative work with McMenamins. She can’t settle on a favorite piece, because she always enjoys her current project. At the moment, that’s a 36×30-inch panel featuring Bigfoot for the new Kalama Harbor Lodge in Washington.

McMenamins artists are also beginning work on the Elks Lodge in Tacoma, Washington. They, along with additional contract artists, will paint during construction and restoration, Yoder said, which, on some days, includes a jackhammer on either side. “This is a job where you really have to go with the flow,” she said.

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