It’s 1994, and Tia Matthies and Steve Freeborn were adding a bar to their music venue, the OK Hotel. They commissioned local painter Jeff Mihalyo to create a mural for the back bar, to be completed in 1998 in time for their 10th anniversary as owners of the OK Hotel. Mihalyo, who had been designing their graphics since 1990, agreed to paint a work celebrating the history of the venue and the people who made it tick, but demurred on one point.
“I was working full time,” he explained in an interview last week, “and I didn’t have time to paint the mural directly on the wall. Instead, I made two 10-foot-long canvases and worked on them nights and weekends at home.”
That decision turned out to be crucial, for reasons no one involved could have predicted. In 2001, two years after the mural was finished, the Nisqually earthquake struck. Plaster rained down, pipes broke, and the already-crumbling infrastructure of the building had to be literally tied together to keep it standing. Had the mural been painted on the wall, it might have been doomed. Today, only insiders know this perfect visual time capsule survived at all.
“Each face in the mural is a real, important person from the scene,” says Mihalyo. “The owners, the cafe staff, people in the local arts scene, patrons, musicians, some dearly departed—I painted each from a photo reference.”
The 20-foot-long painting is a luminous timeline, showing the venue being built, filled, and operated. The composition bears a strong flavor of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals, and Mihalyo’s gentle brushwork makes it feel like a lucid dream.
“There’s red shift and blue shift here,” Mihalyo points out, referring to the astronomical phenomenon. Blue shift is on the left—representing the past coming toward the present—where Matt and Steve Freeborn and others build the cafe. The red shift—echoing the red-painted walls of the club—is to the right, where patrons, artists, musicians, and booking agents sit in the audience, looking into what they assumed would be a long future of shows.
The center is a river of handbills with shows and events printed in tiny text: Bill Frisell, Stone Temple Pilots, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana, Tad, Hempfest. The Dijon turkey-dip sandwich special with fries.
The mural was unveiled in 1999—five years after the commission and one year after the anniversary. Neither he nor the owners ever brought up payment.
“We expected it to be up for a long, long time,” Mihalyo said.
When the earthquake hit and the venue closed, it had been up for two years—less than half the time it took to paint it.
In the 14 years since, the mural has rarely been shown in public. It hangs in a dark, cramped hallway in Mihalyo’s home studio. The canvases are safe from sunlight, but also hidden from the public eye.
Why hasn’t a local institution snapped it up as a piece of cultural heritage?
“After they bought the OK sign, the EMP approached me about it,” Mihalyo recalls. He says he was told their curatorial allowance was already over budget and hasn’t heard back since.
The Museum of History & Industry has also been in touch. In a letter of interest sent to Mihalyo in 2013, Registrar Kristin Halunen describes the “stunning historical piece” in glowing terms, saying she would be “deeply grateful to the charitable individuals who donate this mural to MOHAI.”
But Mihalyo refuses to donate it outright.
Artists donating their own artwork are caught in a bizarre tax paradox. While a client can buy and then donate a piece of art and deduct its full value, artists may only deduct the cost of the materials. This tax provision began in 1969, after Richard Nixon donated his vice presidential papers to a library and took a massive deduction. Since then, creators donating their own work can only deduct their costs, rather than fair market value.
So a client can buy the mural, donate it to MOHAI, and deduct the entire market value. If Mihalyo himself donates the art—20 feet long, five years in the making, of flawless provenance—the most he can deduct is the cost of his paint and canvases: $150.
“Of course I want it in a museum,” he told me, “but I also want acknowledgment that my time and my skill are worth something. Artists are constantly asked to donate work and receive nothing—to be grateful for exposure, and not expect too much.”
Until Mihalyo finds his middleman, or a museum can fund the acquisition, he’ll continue to be the mural’s sole viewer.
“This isn’t where it should be,” he said. “This is Seattle’s history, not mine alone.”