Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Puyallup man undaunted after losing Beatles mural in fire

Jack Widmann created a pen-and-ink mural titled "I Am Saved,” consisting of 190 squares saluting Beatles music. The mural, shown here in 2010, was destroyed in a fire this summer.
Jack Widmann created a pen-and-ink mural titled "I Am Saved,” consisting of 190 squares saluting Beatles music. The mural, shown here in 2010, was destroyed in a fire this summer. Peter Haley

Jack Widmann has spent his adult life as a Puyallup educator who creates art, without ever confusing which comes first.

“I love what I do,” the 38-year-old principal said, sitting in his office at Glacier View Junior High School. “I’m fascinated by art.”

Widmann, his wife Crystal and two teenage kids — Jacki and Bryan — have been between homes for a few months. They moved out of their old house and in with Crystal’s parents while their new home is being built.

The family put some belongings in a storage unit.

“It was hard keeping track of what was where,” Widmann said.

Then came the fire.

On July 17, 121 units in the storage facility southwest of Puyallup burned in what started as a grass fire.

“Someone threw a cigarette in the wrong place, and the storage place went up,” he said.

As his family stood across the street with a growing group watching the flames, Widmann was told by a family member that among the items in the burning unit was his Beatles mural.

Created over a five-year span starting in 2001, the mural was more like a quilt of 190 squares, each one a separate drawing by Widmann inspired by a Beatles song. In the end, it stood 5 feet tall and stretched 9½ feet long.

“It had been in a fireproof box,” he said. “But we’d been breaking it down into different portfolios ...”

He doesn’t like talking about that evening, doesn’t want to sound like someone whose loss was unbearable.

“Yes, it broke my heart,” he said, “but there were families there who lost everything.”

Years ago, a friend had helped Widmann digitize his work, from the full Beatles poster to individual squares, which were then printed as 8-by-10-inch prints that Widmann sold at farmers markets.

Still, the fire took away the original work he’d done at home, inspired by music he loved and surrounded by family.

“Whenever I’d work on it, the kids would go get their crayons and say it was drawing time,” Widmann said. “It was something I hoped to pass on to them.”

He feels fortunate to have it all on computer now and even luckier that he loves the work he does for the Puyallup School District.

“My wife is a teacher at a different school, and I taught eighth-grade classes before I became an assistant principal,” Widmann said. “I taught American history, among other things.”

Always a doodler, he said, he took two art classes — one when he was a student at Puyallup High School, another in college.

After finishing the Beatles mural, he kept himself active artistically with another ambitious project — a timeline of American history. Titled “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the work includes 440 historical figures.

Each individual began looking exactly like the last, almost like lines of paper dolls. So Widmann added little identifiers as he worked: a top hat for Abraham Lincoln, a feather for a Native American, a dress to signify various women.

“I chose the people I illustrated, and there’s a legend identifying them all,” Widmann said.

The piece was shown but never offered for sale. It wasn’t lost in the fire; it remains in his possession.

And now, the principal with a yen to create art has another project. This one is a completely new medium for Widmann.

“I’m writing a book,” he said. “I’ve outlined 22 chapters, written six, so far. I’ll get a couple of hours on the weekend to work on it.”

At that pace, Widmann figures he’ll finish the novel two summers from now.

“It’s going to be the first of three,” he said.

He said it’s slightly inspired by the Harry Potter series and features two kids not unlike his own, except that their mother died during childbirth and their father doesn’t last long, either.

The discoveries of the two children include the value of serving others, of never giving up their values and of love.

So far, so good, Widmann said.

“No one has read it yet,” he said. “I don’t want to put pressure on anyone to say they like it. There’s a lot of work ahead, including editing. This is something I’ve never done before. I’m enjoying it.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638