As you drive north on Boulevard from Fairhaven to Bellingham, the road passes a roundabout and leads up a gentle hill. Here, it becomes North Forest Street and curves along the base of a retaining wall—for years a featureless grey surface, like so many other pieces of urban infrastructure. But this summer, people passing the wall suddenly found themselves alongside a stream of blues, bright salmon swimming along with them. The mural is the work of artist Jason LaClair and represents the beginning of the newest chapter in his life, and of public art in Whatcom County.
LaClair was surrounded by talented artists early in life, and knew he was interested in walking a similar path.
“My mom is from Nooksack and my dad is from Lummi,” says LaClair, who spent the first half of his life on the Nooksack reservation in Everson, and the second half on the Lummi reservation. “My dad was an artist, my uncle on my mom’s side is a master carver, and I grew up watching him create things, and my next-door neighbor was also a master carver from Nooksack. I remember being six years old and walking up to George as he was carving this massive pole, and telling him, ‘Hey, I want to learn that.’”
Surrounded by examples of working artists, LaClair had no trouble finding his own way to express himself. He began to study other people’s art when he was nine years old, and then started to practice shapes on his own. “I got a little bit of guidance on the way, but for the most part I just had to wing it,” he says. “I used to kind of tinker around from the ages of 9 to 13, and it wasn’t until I was 14 [that] I started really putting designs together.”
LaClair soon found he was able to translate his private passion into a means of supporting himself. “I won a logo contest for the Lummi Nation when I was 15 years old,” he says. “My main focus was doing digital prints and making originals with pencils and even Sharpie pens. I would create an original, clean it up on Photoshop, make inkjet prints, and walk door to door selling them. I never liked bumming money off of people, so if I needed something, I’d create a piece of art. I look at my originals from back then and it kind of makes me cringe. I’ve even offered to buy them back, or trade them for something nicer, but people say, ‘No, that’s your story.’”
More recently, one of LaClair’s design projects helped him find a whole new audience for his art. “I created a lot of business logos for companies in Whatcom County, Lummi ,and Nooksack, for vocational rehab-type places, or different entities of the tribes,” he says. “Then one of my tribal leaders, who’s connected to the Ferndale Arts Commission, helped get me a mural there [last] July.”
During this new stage of his career, LaClair had a conversation that reminded him that he’s right where he’s supposed to be.
“An old friend of mine from school said, ‘It’s crazy—you’re doing everything you said you wanted to when we were kids.’ He said that when we were in third grade our teacher asked as what we wanted to be,” LaClair recounts “Some people said firefighter [or] cop. I said I want to be a Coast Salish artist.”
As it turns out, his friend’s older brother owns a store in Deming, where LaClair has art on the wall. That piece caught the eye of another local artist, who also heard the story about LaClair’s third grade announcement. That’s how LaClair came to meet prolific local muralist Gretchen Leggitt, who became his partner for the mural on the North Forest Street retaining wall.
“I was really blown away by how much of a master Gretchen is. She took my art and superimposed it onto a picture of the wall so the Arts Commission here in Bellingham could see what it was going to look like,” says LaClair. “We didn’t use any overhead projectors or anything like that, we just used a grid and did it freehand with spray paint cans.”
It has been a long journey from fine-tipped Sharpies to covering entire walls, but LaClair is clear that he’s not finished.
“It’s just starting—that’s my attitude,” he says. “This is the first of many,”
He also wants to bring other artists with him, working as a middleman that introduces artists to the waiting world.
“When I was walking my art door to door, it was intimidating going to these neighborhoods where people think I’m there to steal. But then they’d find out what I was doing, and word spread, and the next thing you know I’m selling art to the whole neighborhood,” he says. “My hope for sharing art is to inspire the next generation to keep it going, make positive connections, and keep those relationships going.”
A proud, lifelong Whatcom County resident, LaClair says his goal in life is to not just share his own work, but to get all the artists of area tribal communities to step forward and start sharing their work with the world. “Each day I just make sure I’m making a step in the right direction,” he says, “paving the way for artists of the future to be able to openly share what they love to do.”