Have you seen the big bear in downtown Tacoma?

Mural artist Mindy Barker likes to remember Jack, the 800-pound brown bear who frequented a Tacoma hotel in the 1880s.

Jack was a hand-fed bear that used to live, as I understand it, where Stadium is now. It used to be a hotel before it burnt,” Barker said.

Jack actually lived in the Tacoma Hotel, which took up an entire block of A Street between South 9th and South 10th Streets. It burned down in 1935.

Not to be confused with the city’s other famous bear, whom the Humane Society credits with helping start their Tacoma branch, Jack was brought to the city by some hunters as a cub.

He would stand in the lobby of the Tacoma Hotel and drink beer at the bar, until one night when he broke free from his pen and walked down the street. He scared a policeman who then shot him.

Over a hundred years later, Barker has decided to bring Jack back to Tacoma. She’s painted him in at 9 and a half feet tall as part of her mural “Water, Soil, Air,” which decorates a row of boarded up garages in downtown Tacoma’s Antique Row.

“It’s a little nod to Jack,” Barker said. “He would have been walking around in that neighborhood.”

The mural, which Barker completed this week, features three large animals meant to represent natural elements: an otter, an owl, and, of course, a baby bear.

“I wanted one to represent the water, or sea, one to represent soil or the earth, and then one to represent air and the sky, so I chose animals to fit that,” Barker said. “They’re all native animals.”

The mural, funded through a collaboration between Downtown Tacoma Partnership and Spaceworks, seeks to bring color, art, and vibrancy to the downtown area.

According to Michael Liang, the program director of Spaceworks, a Tacoma organization which helps fund public art projects in the city, the temporary, $3,000 mural serves an important purpose.

“Murals are public recognition that the arts are important,” he said. “This project is … literally adding color to our cities. Bright, bold colors are reminders of how important art is in terms of setting for a city.”

Business owners in the area of 725 Broadway had worked with the two organizations because they hoped to bring color back to the area.

The boarded up garages, previously known as the “graffiti garages,” were for many years open spaces for graffiti artists to express their craft.

The garages opened up in 2008, but the city closed them in 2013.

Amy McBride, the city of Tacoma arts administrator at the time told The Columbian in 2013 that the garages were closed down because they became a magnet for illegal activity, which was not perpetrated by the graffiti artists.

“Extra activities happened, rap battles, events,” she said at the time. “Police reported activity, drag racing. Part of the owner’s concerns, and the city’s concern is about enforcement for the negative activity.”

Since then, the garages have remained covered up, empty, and art free. Barker’s mural brings light and color back to the area.

“It was a cool, cool space, but it wasn’t taken care of so the city ended up having to close it,” Barker said. “It’s really sad because it was a needed space for graffiti artists to use and have a wall.”

“I love that street”

Barker is a proud Washingtonian. Born in Tacoma, she moved around the state as a child, and for a while lived on a houseboat in Bellingham.

She graduated with a degree in fine arts from Pacific Lutheran University. Aside from study abroad in Denmark during college and a short stint in Alaska, Barker said she’s lived in Washington her whole life.

Throughout her artistic career, Barker said she’s been fascinated by the shapes and spaces in nature.

“My thing has really been about soil, whether it’s sediment (or) the life that’s in there, plant life, insect life, the biome,” she said. “Even mycelium I love, which is the web of mushroom spores. I love that. I just love the shape of it, how it all interconnects.”

Barker says she loves color, organic shapes, and looking at the spaces in between.

“When things are sitting next to each other I see the space in between them,” she said. In her own work, “the negative space is always really deep and dark.”

Barker, who has been painting public murals since 2013, said she wanted to do the project because of her love of downtown Tacoma.

“I love that street,” she said. “I have lots of friends on that street, business owners that I know. I think everyone down there’s top notch. I love the neighborhood, and of course it gets a lot of traffic, and I love doing anything with Spaceworks.”

Business owners in the area evaluated proposals by five different artists for the space. They selected Barker for the project.

Barker said the project took around two months to complete, much faster than public part projects normally take.

“It was a super fast turnaround. That’s very unusual,” she said. “They told me on June 7 that I had gotten the gig.”

From the design work through the painting process, Barker spent 233 and a half hours on the project. She painted the backgrounds directly onto the building’s plywood, but the animals she did in the studio, and painted them on separate panels.

Her family got together to help her cut out the panels, which she said was time intensive work.

“I cut that stuff out over at my sister and brother in law’s house,” Barker said. “They were so helpful. He figured out the configuration of those animals and how they would be balanced on those boards… That was a great memory.”

Since the mural is temporary, Barker said she hopes to keep and sell the animals after her contract to maintain the mural ends, likely next year.

Barker has painted about six public murals, and said she loves the sense of community that comes from painting outside.

“I talked with this gentleman named John Henry for hours after I got done with the mural, and he was so fascinating,” she said. “ He lives in the neighborhood… Just really really cool people would stop by. There’s so many people that were so supportive.”

She hopes her new mural will inspire people to put more money into Tacoma public art projects, and recommends that anyone interested in getting involved in Tacoma’s art scene to visit the open studios during Tacoma Arts Month.

“I hope that we have more and more murals,” she said.

See Mindy Barker’s mural

Where: Antique Row, 725 Broadway, Tacoma, WA