Vale murals offer snapshots of Malheur County’s history

Frank Yraguen (right) discusses the establishment of Vale’s murals, which capture the history and culture of Malheur County for all to see. The four other active members of the Vale Mural Society – (from right) Beth Wolfe, John Nalivka, Sheri Nalivka and Patty Yraguen – stand beside the “Sunday Go To Meetin'” mural on the Vale Christian Church. (The Enterprise/Ardeshir Tabrizian)

A walk through the city of Vale can be a history lesson.

Murals, painted on buildings throughout the town, tell the story of the Oregon Trail and Malheur County’s diverse communities.

The project was started in the early 1990s by a group of community members who formed the Vale Heritage Reflections Mural Society with the hope of breathing new life into the city.

“It was the idea of revitalizing Vale,” said Frank Yraguen, legal representative for the Mural Society. The choice of location seemed natural given that the Oregon Trail “goes right through Vale,” and the founders had ambitions of helping it become as “destination-oriented” as Sisters.

“We wanted to be able to invigorate,” said Frank. “When I grew up, every store was occupied. We had a little bit of everything. Of course, that changed dramatically.”

Frank and his wife, Patty, were both founding members of the Mural Society,

The first mural was painted in 1993 by artist Don Gray on the Court Street North side of the Malheur Drug building. Titled “The New Arrivals,” it depicts pioneers leaving the Keeney Pass and making their way to Vale.

In all there are 32 murals in Vale. The Mural Society often approached building owners with an idea for a mural, contracted with them on the project and selected the artist. In many cases, though, it was the building owners who contacted the Mural Society.

The process by which the murals were developed has changed over time. Rather than using pencil sketches, the artist and members now send images back and forth until they settle on a final concept for the oil painting. The Mural Society also has been digitally reproducing the oil paintings to make postcards for the past 25 years.

“This has been a learning process,” said Frank. “People have the impression that’s it’s pretty easy, you just paint something on a wall. But its changed just during the almost 30 years we’ve been involved, and its continuing to have innovations.”

Patty said they and the artists they work with do research to ensure the murals “are as historically accurate as possible,” but there is always somebody to correct them when they do miss something.

For the ethnic mural on the fitness center building, she said, “somebody came to us and said, ‘That’s not right’ – they said they never have the stovetop on that side of the tent, and they were right.”

The most recent mural was painted in 2013 and sits on the Sagebrush Saloon building. The mural shows three images, the first being a bull rider at the Vale Rodeo, with an arrow pointed at a postcard beside it.

The postcard was sent by Benny Maag, now deceased, of Jamieson to his sister Helen French, who was serving in North Africa during World War II. Text atop the postcard reads, “ACTION on the OREGON TRAIL!! VALE RODEO – since 1914.”

Above it is a rope with the message “…still exciting after all these years!!”

“This year, 2020, is the first time that the annual Fourth of July Rodeo Days has been cancelled,” said Frank. “The idea of the Rodeo Mural was to celebrate 100 years of continuous rodeo in Vale.”

The Mural Society at one time had 30 to 40 active members and currently has five – Frank and Patty Yraguen, John and Sheri Nalivka, and Beth Wolfe. Many people have been involved with the Mural Society through the years, with “some of the go-getters” having moved and not been replaced. Members “noticed a distinct change,” said Frank, when funding for the murals began to drop after 2005. Currently, there is not as much public interest or available funding as there once was for maintenance, upkeep and refurbishing of murals.

“I guess the first half of our history, we were very successful in getting grants. The last half has been difficult,” he said. “They want new and innovative ideas. Ours is old and they’re not interested in maintaining something that has already been done.”

“I would readily admit that we’re struggling to do what we should do and we’re really not able to do everything that we should do,” he said.

The Mural Society still receives local contributions, including from the city of Vale and Ontario, Oregon Basque Club. “People do on occasion give us donations enough to kind of sustain us and keep us going,” said Frank.

Patty said they used to hold fundraisers, with auctions that would earn them between $10,000 and $14,000, but they now “don’t have enough people to do a fundraiser.”

“I am concerned about the future of the murals,” said Frank. “They do need work and maintenance, they need people who are interested in preserving them, and there are so few of us now and we will pass on, and I don’t what the long-term effect will be.”

“I guess it’s how important are they to this community?” he said. “We have the perception that people do appreciate them in the main, that people would want to see them preserved. We feel that’s a general view, but it hasn’t always been a universal view. I can recall going to one entity years ago and being told by commission member that it ‘looks like a waste of good paint.’”

The next mural – the first since 2013 – is planned for the Vale Senior Citizen Center, which is spearheading the project.

“When that building was built, purposely there was an area left on the north end for a mural,” said Frank.

Frances Remple, a long-time Vale resident and the chair of the senior center committee that sought funding for the mural, submitted a grant to the Wood Family Charitable Trust.

The organization later awarded a $10,000 grant for the mural.

The Senior Citizen Center mural was planned to be completed by fall, but the Covid pandemic has slowed the process. The Yraguens now hope to have it up before the winter.

Both Frank and Patty said their personal favorite is the ethnic mural, which shows dancers representing people of different cultures holding hands.

“All of them along the way are holding hands, and we are a community that’s very diverse,” said Patty.

The mural, she said, reflects the presence of ethnic minorities, and the community’s embrace of them.

“The ones on the end have outstretched hands, meaning that we accept everyone,” she said.

“We are all encompassed,” said Frank. “Yes, we have historical ties to cultures and traditions, but we are one. We are part of the city and Vale, born and raised on the Oregon Trail.”

News tip? Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian by email at [email protected] or call 503-929-3053.


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