Canadian-born Michener is transforming Enterprise one brush stroke at a time

Mural, mural on the wall
Kathleen Ellyn

Wallowa County Chieftain

Published on November 14, 2017 3:23PM

Murlaist John Michener paints the antlers on an elk that adorns the 120-foot mural along the south side of Thompson Auto in Enterprise. The artist is also responsible for the paintings on the front of Ruby Peak Naturals, inside and outside El Bajio, outside the Red Rooster Cafe and inside The Little Store in Enterprise.

Kathleen Ellyn/Chieftain

Murlaist John Michener paints the antlers on an elk that adorns the 120-foot mural along the south side of Thompson Auto in Enterprise. The artist is also responsible for the paintings on the front of Ruby Peak Naturals, inside and outside El Bajio, outside the Red Rooster Cafe and inside The Little Store in Enterprise.

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The work of muralist John Michener is most visible in Enterprise on the exterior of El Bajio Mexican Restaurant. But that’s just one of his contributions to the beautification of the city.

His work is also featured on the façades of The Red Rooster Café and Ruby Peak Naturals and inside the Little Store in Enterprise. His newest piece is being created on the south wall of Thompson Auto Supply and another is planned for the west side of the Elk’s Lodge next spring.

Michener is a Canadian with a green card who has been in the states since 1989. He began his career in Ontario where he attended University of Guelph west of Toronto and graduated in 1974 with a bachelor’s in art before going on to art school in Toronto.

He knew he’d be an artist from high school on and was at work as an artist while at university. Although his training was typical for a young artist –– papermaking, sculpting, wood carving, painting and more –– he specialized immediately.

“I knew right away that I wanted to paint,” he said. “So, the second year I went to all my profs and convinced them to let me have a studio off campus and bring them as many paintings as I could make.”

His interests are varied: life sciences, astronomy, design, wildlife and more. When he was younger he thought he’d be a forest ranger but discovered he was more right-brained.

“Math. Math was just over my head, so I didn’t pursue science,” he said.

Canvases weren’t a hit with galleries. They wanted consistency, he said. They wanted him to chose a medium and a theme and stick with it. But he didn’t.

“Whatever turned me on that day is what I painted,” he said.

He moved to Vancouver Island and put on gallery shows of his own. They regularly sold out. Then, he painted a couple murals around town. Soon he had a following. His first big commission fell in his lap when an organizer attempting to line up muralists for the British Columbia installation at the 1986 World’s Fair came calling. Finding someone to take on such a big project –– nine giant murals, each picturing a different tourist zone of British Columbia as seen from the air –– was a challenge.

Michener volunteered.

“It took me over 11 months, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week,” he said. “That really taught me a lot. I painted every mountain, every mesa, every river, every lake, every glacier, every canyon, every town. I’d never done anything like it before. There was a lot of interpreting and figuring it out.”

Another huge project he has completed each year for 20 years is the pair of 120x40-foot backdrop walls for the themed flower show at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds in California.

He’s also the artist who created the Hotel Josephine Mural in Grants Pass, Ore., and the Canyonville, Ore., city hall mural.

He figures he’s completed more than 1,000 murals in his lifetime. There’s a ton of work that goes into a mural other than applying paint to a surface –– research, study of other images, graphing and drawing. He’s learned a lot about technique. There is a freshness each time.

“I never know what’s going to happen before I start,” Michener said. “I always go in saying ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do this.’ And then something else takes over because I know I can’t do it. The one advice I give to most artists is to get out of their own way. When I’m not sure what technique or what colors I’m going to use, I just start slapping paint on ... and suddenly it just comes out.”

That mystical sense is what keeps him painting 50 years into his career.

“A lot of people want to come help you and want to learn to be a muralist and you hand them a roller and say, ‘here’s a hundred feet and it’s all got to be blue.’”

Painting El Bajio in Enterprise was all fun, he said. He started inside and then he and owner Leo Arenas came up with additional ideas until the whole building was transformed inside and out.

“The most rewarding part for me is the process where I get to let go, and I get to be in a meditative state while I’m just unfolding and not thinking about it.”

Once a painting is done, he doesn’t feel he owns it. He enjoys leaving it behind.

“I like leaving behind something that speaks to everybody,” he said. “I think I’m leaving behind portals for people to escape into for a little bit. I think it makes a big difference for them. And I’ve never had anybody graffiti a mural.”



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