Fence murals? Yes!
(Learn about the artists)
Yard art? Yes!
Art around Ashland series.
“There’s a 25’ long multi-colored Jellyfish on Fordyce Street!” That’s the email message I got from a friend who reads my Walk Ashland articles. No, we don’t have a new aquarium on Fordyce Street, but we do have a jellyfish. My friend proved it to me with attached photos. Here’s one for you.
When I went to Fordyce Street to investigate, what I found surprised me.
Art and Community
I have recently been writing many articles about art in Ashland. The Fordyce Street mural artists with whom I spoke believe in the power of visual art to elicit smiles, to bring people together, even to change lives for the better. They believe, as I do, that art within the community is important. Going to an art museum is a rare experience for most people, and a “never” experience for many. On the other hand, driving or bicycling or walking around our community is an everyday experience for almost everyone.
Artist J. Mike Kuhn echoed what I have heard from many other Ashland artists, when he told me: “It’s so cool how we can connect and inspire others. I may never get to meet some of the people that I inspire, but I think it’s interesting that you can really do that.”
Not just one fence mural
I found the 25’ jellyfish; it’s a mural painted on a fence. It is hard to miss! Then I started walking around the neighborhood and pretty soon I had a photographic collection of not two, not three, but six colorful fence murals, along with creative yard art and other beautiful sights.
As I was walking back to my car, I stopped to look once again at the longest fence mural of all. This was at 573 Fordyce Street. At that moment, in a small example of the “WalkAshland serendipity” I experience again and again, the homeowner Peter Paul Montague and his daughter came out of their front door. As they were about to get in their car, I said “Hello” and introduced myself. I asked him if he knew who painted the mural on his fence, and he replied, “I did.” He was on his way to pick up another child, so we agreed to meet another time for an interview. Before I tell you about the artists, here are some other highlights of Fordyce Street.
Let’s begin our Fordyce Street walk at the corner of East Main Street
At its south end, Fordyce Street meets East Main Street. To the north, it ends after about six blocks at private property that overlooks and extends to Bear Creek. If you want to reach a trail to North Mountain Park from here, turn left on Munson Drive, right onto Village Square Drive, and keep an eye out for the trail that leads into the park.
Ashland as a mill town?
As I started my walk, I met Denise, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1980. She described Fordyce Street of that time as a gravel road with only six or seven houses along it. She remembers a sawmill wigwam burner still present in the neighborhood, a magnet for young boys to play in, though the sawmills had all closed. In the photo below, you can see a wigwam burner in the background that was at another sawmill just a couple blocks away.
Most people who have moved to Ashland during the past 40 years don’t know that Ashland was a mill town not so long ago. There were at least nine sawmills operating here during the mid-20th century.
The Oregon Sawmill site was along Fordyce Street from 1956 to 1967. Lithia Lumber Mill had been located two blocks away, where the Ashland Police Station is now, from the 1940s to the 1960s. A third sawmill called Workman Mill was across East Main Street from the early 1950s to early 1960s. Now you know why the college student housing located at its former site is called Old Mill Village.
Creative art along Fordyce Street
In addition to beautiful murals, I found other creative and interesting art to share on our walk from the south end to the north end of Fordyce Street.
Right across the street from this metal and wood gate is a colorful gate painted by Peter Paul Montague, who also painted the fence on both sides of the gate.
This house at 540 Fordyce Street has several creative artworks that I stopped to admire.
Introducing the mural artists
Peter Paul Montague painted five geometric murals. J. Mike Kuhn painted the dramatic jellyfish mural. I interviewed both Peter Paul Montague and J. Mike Kuhn so I could do justice to their artwork and their artistic stories.
Peter Paul Montague’s artistic background
Before Montague entered his current profession of nursing, he supported himself for many years as a craft artisan, batiking on organic cotton clothing.
He had played with paints as a child, but didn’t get serious about art until after graduating from college with a degree in Sociology. During a one month hiking trip in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, he learned about batik art from a friend who had trained in Kenya. Spending a summer travelling with his friend, Montague learned the basics of the East-African Batik tradition. Montague would spend the next 14 years making and selling Batik clothing as Nakupenda Batik. He focused on sustainable practices, using only organic cotton clothing, beeswax, and specializing in natural indigo dye.
Made from the Indigo plant, this natural dye has been used for thousands of years. Note however that blue jeans and most other indigo dyed clothing are now made from synthetic indigo dye. Montague’s largest batik art was a 9′ by 9′ wall hanging, but what put food on his table for many years was his batik clothing.
“Philadelphia, where I grew up, is full of public art.”Peter Paul Montague
“I grew up with public art,” he told me. His hometown of Philadelphia is known as the City of Murals. According to their website, “Mural Arts Philadelphia is the nation’s largest public art program, dedicated to the belief that art ignites change. Mural Arts has created over 4,000 works of public art through innovative collaborations with community-based organizations, city agencies, nonprofit organizations, schools, the private sector, and philanthropies.”
He was inspired and influenced by…
When I walked Fordyce Street with Peter Paul Montague, he told me the names of two artists who influenced his mural painting style. Sol LeWitt inspired him to experiment with bold colors and geometric designs on large “canvases” (such as fences). Isaiah Zagar, mosaic artist in the Philadelphia South Street neighborhood, inspired him to be imaginative.
Here’s an example of one of LeWitt’s large pieces.
Here’s a peek at Zagar’s mosaic work in Philadelphia.
Peter Paul Montague’s murals and process
“My goal is for people to feel movement when they view the paintings, even though they are static.”Peter Paul Montague
The first fence he painted was his long fence along Kirk Lane, with a boldness and color palette inspired by Sol LeWitt’s work. The long fence provided 60′ to work with. He created outlines for the curves using string and a pivot point, and filled in the outlines with high quality wood stains to provide color.
His property has a LOT of fence, and his second painting was done on a continuation of the first long painted fence. In this one, he got more creative with his shapes and chose a theme of “circle and waves” for the mural.
A neighbor volunteered his fence for Montague’s third fence painting. This attractive art has a new theme: “rivers and mountains.” You’ll notice a variety of blues and greens for the flowing river and browns and reds for the stylized mountains.
Montague shared some of his in-process design and painting photos with me. It is fascinating to see glimpses of how it was created.
Another neighbor liked the designs so much that they asked if he would collaborate with them to create a design for their fence. The result has a theme of “interlocking circles.” Notice how each band of color changes as it moves from one circle to the next. That really impressed me.
Finally, there is a smaller design in Montague’s front yard. He called it a “color study,” since he experimented with color blending by using a second, dry brush to create subtle gradations of color.
Jellyfish mural by J. Mike Kuhn
It’s not often that one sees a 25’ long jellyfish in Ashland. Unless of course you live in the Fordyce Street neighborhood! This fence mural was painted by local artist and graphic designer J. Mike Kuhn in 2020.
“I thought it would be cool to donate a more permanent mural to the town. A lot of my other work has been painting murals on vehicles, 13 or 14 since I moved to Ashland.”J. Mike Kuhn
Why a jellyfish?
Kuhn grew up in New Jersey, where he would spend summers at the Jersey Shore. If you spend time on his website, you will see the themes of ocean and wave and flow. You will see many colorful artistic versions of the creatures who live under the waves.
His brand name is FEEESH, a play on words. Playful yet serious.
Mike told me that FEEESH stands for “Forever Energetically Entering Endeavors Spreading Happiness.”
How many people are able to capture in six words not only their approach to art, but also their aspiration for a life well lived and their desire to uplift others in the community? I gained a tremendous respect for this young man when I took a few minutes to consider seriously his eccentric brand name.
Making the jellyfish mural
Kuhn described many layers of meaning in the design and execution of this jellyfish. With bamboo growing behind the fence, he wanted the light green base of the mural to emulate and blend with the ever-changing greens of bamboo leaves reflecting the sun. In addition, the flowing jellyfish blends with the flowing nature of bamboo moving in the wind.
A deeper conceptual thought embodied in the mural was inspired by Xavi, a mural artist Kuhn worked with and learned from in 2019 (see more about Xavi below). Kuhn sees the jellyfish coming out of tumultuous times, as expressed in the color selection and design on the left end of the mural, and going in to a calmer area.
On the first day, he painted the entire background. The larger light green section received one coat to age faster and the multiple hue section was double coated to endure longer. On the second day, he painted the jellyfish using mostly darker tones of spray paint in order to last longer against sun fading and to offer stronger contrast.
From the beginning, he thought about the life of the mural. He pointed out how light moves across the mural throughout each day. It gets full sun in the morning, then partial sun, then full shade late afternoon. Because of the full sun, he expects the light green paint to fade more quickly than the spray paint. Over time, the wood’s natural grain will begin to show through the light green paint around the jellyfish, and the relationship of the jellyfish to the fence will gradually change. Seeing the wood’s natural grain in this mural will also reference the nearby murals by Peter Paul Montague, who used stain colors that allow the underlying wood grain to become part of the design.
Here is an artist’s detail I would not have noticed. The gray color in the jellyfish is actually chrome spray paint, not gray. Chrome is basically a gray color, but it reflects more sunshine to add a bit of shimmer on sunny mornings. As the day goes on, it becomes a normal flat gray color.
The neighborhood mural artists meet
As Kuhn was working on his jellyfish mural, Montague (who lives a block away) stopped by to watch and talk. Kuhn appreciated this, and added, “I was lucky enough to give him a compliment in person, since I love his pieces. I think they’re beautifully sophisticated and so well executed. I thought I had to do a good job just to do justice to his work.”
I asked Kuhn, “When did you become an artist?”
“That police officer is one of the reasons I am now a professional artist!”J. Mike Kuhn
“I’ve been creating with paints or Legos since before I knew it was a thing,” he replied. “When I was in high school, I had a legal issue because some friends and I painted the entire inside of a large warehouse [illegally]. During a terrifying interrogation, a police officer’s advice to me was that I had talent and I was wasting my time breaking into places doing art for free. I should go to school for this. At the time, I was planning to go to college for chemistry, since I was fascinated with science. That police officer is one of the reasons I am now a professional artist!”
After high school, Kuhn went to a local community college for graphic design. He followed up by attending and graduating from an intensely competitive arts college in Manhattan, the School of Visual Arts. Exceptionally artistic students from all across the world go there to study advertising, design, fine arts and more.
He has done hundreds of patterns as a graphic artist working for companies as well as working on his own. He creates patterns and designs art for hammocks, chairs, t-shirts, shoes and more.
He was inspired and influenced by…
“Have an intention behind each stroke.”Xavi Panneton
Internationally known, local mural artist Xavi Panneton took nine months to paint the entire exterior of the Kids Unlimited building in Medford during 2019. While assisting Panneton with the main entrance area, Kuhn was deeply influenced by Panneton’s art and his mentoring.
“Working with him for a couple months was unbelievable. I remember asking him about my work at the time. He said, ‘Your studio work looks like you’re doing it illegally [rushed].’ Xavi was the one who taught me to slow down. He gave me the most amazing line: ‘Have an intention behind each stroke.’ Now with my paintings I try to think about the color interactions. He even influenced how I speak about my work.”
Cannabis aficionado, food lover, BMX rider
Kuhn came originally to Southern Oregon to work a few months during the marijuana harvest season, which provided some income to help him focus on art the rest of the year. While here, he began to make friends with people who were creating art and supporting art. I was surprised when he told me why he decided to move here. “The reason I really stayed and moved here was the food. The food in this area is exceptional. You can’t go to a food store in New Jersey and get what you can at the Food Coop. Between the agricultural diversity and the natural beauty of this area, I couldn’t resist moving here.”
He added: “I’m also a BMX rider, so I really enjoy the skate parks in this area. It’s kind of a unique thing in the country that Oregon has such large skate parks. You couldn’t legally build a skate park like you have in Oregon in New Jersey, because of insurance laws. For me, it’s a treat to be able to ride these big cement sculptures, basically. That’s actually where I’ve met at least half of the owners of buses I have painted.”
“I was 25 when I first saw the Milky Way. In New Jersey you can count the stars. Now seeing the Milky Way most nights blows my mind. To me, it’s such a treat.”J. Mike Kuhn
When he gets homesick
Most of Kuhn’s family still lives in New Jersey. He gets homesick for them sometimes. I laughed when he told me what he does. “I go to Jersey Mike’s when I’m feeling homesick, because the photos in the Jersey Mike’s shop are of my mom’s neighborhood.”
Art in the Ashland economy
Large gatherings in Ashland have been shut down for nearly a year as this article is being written. With no clear end in sight, there has been much discussion about how to diversify Ashland’s economy to depend less on the economic power of Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). It’s not a matter of “instead of OSF,” since I believe we will always have OSF here. It is definitely a matter of “in addition to OSF.”
Artist J. Mike Kuhn put it to me this way. “I think personally the town needs to invest more in visual arts. In times of fire and other awful situations [like COVID-19], you can’t always have performance art, but visual arts will always stand. A mural is still enjoyable in the smoke, or when people are limited to walking around their neighborhood.”
He expanded his vision of the impact of visual arts to include not only tourists, but also the children who grow up here. “I see this town as developing into even more of an arts community. If we did more street murals and things like that, I think it would be a great space for children to grow up. I try to inspire kids with the idea that you can do something cool. You can change your community.”
Finally, why the name Fordyce Street?
Usually I have no idea why a street was given its particular name. In the case of Fordyce Street, we have a story from a man who wrote a booklet in 1951 about Ashland street names. According to the author Henry C. Galey, he named Fordyce St. in memory of Asa G. Fordyce, who came to Ashland with his family in 1853. Fordyce got a 320 acre donation land claim along Bear Creek, including what is now North Mountain Park and the Fordyce Street neighborhood. Fordyce sold his land to Frank Carter in the late 1880s and it became part of the Carter Land Company cattle operation.
Asa Fordyce was well respected in the community. As evidence, here is a story about the first elected school board in Ashland. School classes were first taught in Ashland in 1854 at Eber Emery’s house, with Miss Lizzie Anderson the teacher. This informal arrangement continued until April 3, 1857, when the small community held a meeting to elect three school directors and a clerk for the just-formed Jackson County School District No. 5. John P. Walker (for whom Walker School and Walker Street are named) was chosen, along with Asa G. Fordyce and Bennett Million, while Robert B. Hargadine was the clerk.
If you would like to learn how a three-year-old was responsible for the creation of School District No. 5 in 1857, please read this article.
I hope you have enjoyed my article about Fordyce Street and its beautiful murals. If you would like to read other articles about artwork in Ashland, here are a couple of suggestions.
Anon. “An Introduction to History of the Rogue Valley: with a focus on the Ashland area.” North Mountain Park Nature Center Brochure. Version 4, Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, December 2012.
Darling, John. “Fire strikes twice,” Medford Mail Tribune, September 26, 2018.
Galey, Henry C. with Geo. W. Dunn and Rose D. Galey. “Information on Ashland Streets, April 5, 1951,” at SOU Hannon Library.
Kids Unlimited website, accessed February 27, 2021.
Kuhn, J. Mike. Interview and personal communications, October 2020 and other dates.
Montague, Peter Paul. Interview and personal communications, October 2020 and other dates.
Mural Arts Philadelphia website. (accessed February 11, 2021)
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens website (accessed February 11, 2021).