When Thomas Valencia was a teenager in the 1990s, he and his friends used to paint art on a large, porous rock in Woodland Park as an unofficial memorial for friends who had passed away.
“That’s where it all started,” Valencia said. “That’s what we had for an art wall.”
Since then, Valencia has used a variety of different mediums over the years. After recently growing a reputation as a mural artist in Kalispell, he was approached by Alisha Shilling of KALICO Art Center and representatives from Rails to Trails of Northwest Montana, a nonprofit group that has paved miles of the Great Northern Historical Trail in and outside of Kalispell.
Rails to Trails officials have been working with KALICO on several projects around Kalispell to enhance the old railroad trail, which led them to Valencia.
Valencia submitted a sketch to the Flathead County Parks and Recreation to paint a mural along a section of trail on Meridian Road, which approved the mural in early September, and the artist set to work. With two backpacks filled with 50 spray cans, a colorful landscape of joyous people doing cartwheels has brought the cinderblocks underneath the Meridian trestle bridge to life.
“This particular part of the tunnel gets hit (with vandalism) all of the time,” Shilling said.
“That area that Thomas just finished is an area that kind of went into disrepair,” Kip Smith with Rails to Trails added. “It’s had some vandalism and graffiti over the years, and we decided it was time to fix it up.”
Part of Valencia’s mission is to not only add color to Kalispell, but to cover up vandalism.
In a separate project, Valencia painted a colorful train on a West Center Street property that had recently been vandalized. After getting permission from the property owner, Valencia climbed the rickety ladder to cover up the vandalized wall above the old grain silos.
Valencia is also painting a massive, half-block-long mural on the corner of Center Street and Fifth Avenue West after raising $2,000 to paint a colorful day-to-night scene of a winding river, mountains, fire and the Northern Lights.
Valencia typically projects the mural’s outline onto the walls that he’s preparing to paint in order to get it to scale, which he then fills in “freestyle.”
With three projects nearly finished, he has his sights set on a giant blank wall on Main Street in Kalispell. But this one, he says, would cost significantly more in supplies and would require scaffolding to reach the top. Valencia is hoping to coordinate a deal with the property owner and raise funds to paint a large-scale mural in the future.
Since covering vandalism with art has been a pattern for Valencia, he’s also advocating for an art wall, similar to the makeshift memorial he used when he was in high school.
“An art wall would be perfect,” Valencia said. “It would cut down on graffiti, and the analogy is if you give the skaters a skate park, they’re not jumping off the library stairs.”
Valencia envisions a 20- to 30-foot long wall somewhere along the Great Northern Historical Trail, similar to art walls in Venice Beach. He’s also hoping to get more mural gigs in the future to bring more color to Kalispell.
“He wants to bring public art and positivity to our town,” Shilling said. “It helps everybody trying to do good things and push forward public art.”