Mural gracing renovated MBVA Building no longer a mystery

By Sarah Brown

Lebanon Local

A new addition to the MBVA Building, at  550 S. Main Street, has visitors “oohing” and “ahhing.”

It has also, for a time, posed some unanswered questions.

The owners of the building uncovered a huge multi-panel landscape mural in the structure during renovation. It needed some major restoration work, but the mural now hangs in the reception area for visitors to appreciate.

Until recently, the story behind the mural had remained a mystery.

Mike Van Atta, of Vanco Contracting, was in the middle of demolishing the former JC Penney building when he uncovered the hidden treasure.

“He was really excited about it,” said his wife, Becky Van Atta, of MBVA. “He was like, ‘Check this out! This is so awesome!’”

To find the painting in the midst of so much rubble was really unexpected, she said. It had been used as a wall partition on the second story, and there was a sheet of plywood in front of it. But by the time the Van Attas discovered it, part of it had been ruined.

“One part of it was completely busted,” Becky said. “It was just hanging on by threads.”

Mike used his carpentry skills to repair the woodwork, and as much as 15 inches had to be trimmed off the bottom because it had multiple outlet holes in it.

Friend and colleague Jennifer Pulliam, of Willamette Valley Art Studio, was invited to repair the artwork.

“I had put my heart in restoring it,” Pulliam said.

While Pulliam worked on restoring the paintwork, people would admire the mural and ask about it, but Pulliam didn’t have any answers for them, she said. Though she had done a search for the artist, she came up empty.

Visitors told her they recognized certain areas in the painting, but no one could pinpoint exactly the location the painting depicts, she said, noting it seems to have a “local feel of scattered areas,” but all in one painting.

Pulliam wasn’t far off, though.

“It has such a great story on it,” she said. “You can almost imagine all the people that lived in the painting. There’s a little schoolhouse and playground, a mailbox, a lumber mill, and lots of effects.”

The mural hangs just inside the building, next to the receptionist desk.

So here’s the story behind the mysterious mural:

The artist, Viola West, used to teach painting classes in Lebanon through Linn-Benton Community College. She had painted the mural as a teaching aid for her students, said West, now 89 and living near Waldport.

“It was a painting of what I saw when I came over from Junction City to teach,” she said. “I painted a mural on the wall so I could point at it when I was talking about different (aspects) of painting, like distance and mountains and so forth.”

Though West can’t remember exactly when she painted the mural, it can be determined that it was  completed in the mid- to late-1980s.

LBCC moved three modular units to property on Stoltz Hill Road in 1981. By 1987, the college accepted the then-closed JC Penney building as a donation for its Lebanon community education center.

Bill Mills, managing editor at the time for the college newspaper, The Commuter, wrote a story about West and her mural in 1989.

VIOLA WEST’S mural was the topic of a story in the May 31, 1989 issue of The Commuter newspaper at LBCC.

West said she always liked to draw, and she told Mills she’d been painting since she was in high school during the 1940s.

“I just can’t remember any time I haven’t painted,” she said recently.

During her art career, West sold her paintings – now in as many as 88 countries – and Bernard Pictures, Inc. has printed several of  her works, as well, she said. Her most profitable year brought in $45,000, and her most expensive art work earned her $10,000.

“I’ve painted so many people’s homes and old buildings, but I do like to paint animals, also,” she said. “But I think the main thing is I like to paint old buildings that are falling down, like barns, because when the barn is gone, the only thing they’ll have left is a picture of it.”

Her mural includes a couple of dead possums on the roads, she noted.

“I decided to paint exactly what I saw (during the drive). I think it was a white barn that was there, and then one time when I went, there was a dead possum on the road.”

How the painting ended up hidden between plywood and used as a partition is still unknown, but West recalls a few details about her mural, which is actually painted on soundboard.

There were tables in the classroom, and she painted the mural just down to the table top. It took her about 15 hours to complete. Then, “for some reason,” they moved the whole wall and she had to add on to the mural all the way down to the floor, she said.

“I love that it was a teaching moment, that that’s what it was used for,” Becky Van Atta said after hearing the story for the first time.

The mural can be seen just inside the MBVA building. The receptionist made a list of all the things that can be found in the painting, to be used as an “I Spy” game for visitors.

“I had a little saying,” West said. “When you start to paint, everybody crowds in that same room with you. All your problems, all your enemies, everybody you can think of is crowded in that room.

“And then, as you start painting, they all leave, and you continue to paint and pretty soon even you leave.”