On board: Seattle muralist henry embarks on a new artistic journey


Walk around Seattle long enough and you’re bound to spot one of Ryan Henry Ward’s colorful murals of a sloth, bird, turtle or another animal on the front face of a restaurant, an electrical box or maybe the side of someone’s house, signed just “henry” in friendly black and white hand-lettering.

Over the past 15 years, Ward has painted more than 500 murals across the Seattle area, which have become a staple of the street art scene. The paintings feature vivid illustrations of animals and nature on pastel gradients, seemingly radiating positivity and wholesomeness to passersby.

Now with his newest venture, Ward and his business partner David Roman are painting an entire ADA-accessible tour bus — inside and out. The goal is to showcase Seattle’s bustling art scene to locals and tourists alike.

A self-taught artist, Ward started painting at 16 using supplies he scavenged from a closet in his high school. He fell in love with the artform, keeping it up as a hobby for years.

“Many years before my professional career started, someone asked me to paint a mural in their kids’ room,” Ward said. “And so, that was my first one, and then I did maybe 15 [murals] in people’s houses, and I just really liked working on the larger scale and using my whole body to paint, with the full arm reach and things like that. For me it felt really natural and good to paint like that.”

At age 32, Ward decided to take the leap and start painting professionally. He sold his smaller-form art in coffee shops and galleries, but his murals really took his career off the ground.

In the beginning, Ward lived humbly, painting his first 25 murals for barter. He also said that he struggled with housing instability and substance use in his first few years as a full-time artist.

“I lived really simply. I lived in a vehicle for the first few years of getting things going. [I] actually spent one year without a home at all, without any shelter. So I do have some roots in the beginning of my career with being homeless, kind of struggling with drug addiction and things, trying to get a handle on that,” Ward said.

Focusing on the art helped him reach stability again.

“I think just that I had something to do helped. You know, something to kind of keep myself occupied that I liked,” he said. “If I didn’t have that, I don’t think I would have made it out.”

One of Ward’s main goals in his art is promoting positivity and inspiration in the community.

“Love and nurturing are really important to me. I do a lot of characters that are embracing each other or interacting with each other in kind of positive ways,” he said. “I’m kind of mindful of transcending age. I don’t want to do public art that’s only relatable to a small amount of the public. So I’m trying to create a broader, welcoming thing to all ages: content that’s fun for teenagers, fun for five year olds and fun for middle-aged folks.”

Ward said that the animal characters and motifs are inspired by his upbringing and connection to nature.

“I grew up around a lot of animals; I grew up on a farm,” he said. “Besides painting, my second love is hiking. So I get out in the woods a lot, and I just kinda relate to the animals.”

Roman, the owner of the bus being painted, said that the plan was to guide passengers on a tour of Ward’s many murals, as well as other iconic art spots throughout the city. Roman said that the Henry tours will be far more interesting than those put on by the big tour companies, because theirs will be run by artists.

“This will just be another fun little thing that you can come in and do in the city and actually get more of an artist’s take on the city of Seattle,” he said.

The two also hope to collaborate with other artists to uplift the commercial viability of independent artists in Seattle as a whole.

“The city’s becoming such a corporate industry. …  I kind of feel like this is a counterpoint to that, like maybe a balancing weight. We can create industry, as artists, that give other artists jobs,” Ward said. “Like the driver: He’s an artist. So I’m going to be hiring and David’s going to be hiring other artists so we can all continue to thrive under an umbrella or whatever. And then this will encourage other people to do similar things like, ‘Oh, wow, we can do that.’

“It was kind of like when I started doing murals on the scale I did. It kind of was a shock to the mural community at first, but now, you know, it kind of paved a road that allowed a lot more murals to happen for other muralists,” Ward said.

Ward and Roman said that the bus should hopefully be ready to begin tours by the summer.

Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.

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