Painting an Ashland High icon

Renovations to Ashland High's Mountain Avenue Gym could mean more than new indoor facilities. It may also mean the loss of an 18-year-old mural on the exterior that has become a campus icon.

The 10-foot-by-10-foot mural depicts a grizzly bear donning a football helmet and breaking through the front wall of the building.

Until recently, very few knew the identities of the artists behind the elaborate work. Ken Cobb, 36, and Jason Williams, 36, kept their role in the Sept. 15, 1989 project well under wraps.

The piece was done in anticipation of Ashland's No. 1-ranked football team (which eventually won the state championship) hosting No. 2 Roseburg the next day. The duo hoped the art would be left alone long enough that ticket-buyers waiting in long lines would have to see it.

"As long as it made it through the football game, that was all we expected," said Williams, who had graduated from AHS the year before. "The student body got pretty riled up and petitioned to keep it. It was pretty cool to see."

AHS principal Jeff Schlecht, 57, was associate principal at the school in 1989. While he headed the investigation to find and discipline the artists, he and the rest of the administration saw that the image had value in boosting school spirit.

"I didn't even have to listen to the kids and how much they really liked it," said Schlecht. "Intuitively I just looked at this and I went, 'This is cool.' It's so well done. And the craftsmanship in the middle of the night?"

Cobb and Williams began their work on the mural at — a.m. and were done by about 3:30 a.m. Close friend Kevin Eibner was on look-out duty. They used a 20-foot ladder borrowed from Cobb's father's construction site to cover lights on a nearby building with paper bags.

They then used the ladder to get themselves and a large duffle bag filled with spray paint cans up to their makeshift canvas.

Their work went without incident until they were nearly finished. Eibner fell asleep on the job and a man wandering home from a bar came upon the artists at work. Cobb recalls being ready to use his exit strategy &

jump and run.

"If (the drunken man) had been anybody important it would've been bad timing," Cobb said. "It was a bail. If we're leaving, we're leaving fast."

Cobb and Williams finished the deed quickly after the man passed and went home for a short night of restless sleep.

The next morning Cobb, a senior, was immediately approached by Schlecht asking if he knew anything of the art. Cobb effectively played dumb and wasn't questioned any further.

"I think lots of people got in trouble for it," Cobb said. "They were trying to round people up. They decided to keep it but they wanted to make sure someone got in trouble. So eventually over the years people started taking credit for it."

When the bell rang signifying the start of his first period P.E. class, Cobb tried not to even look at his work. To get to class, he walked through a crowd of about 200 students gazing at what the duo had done.

"The reaction at school I guess was everything," Cobb said. "I think everybody liked it. It was just that (the administration) couldn't condone it, which was fine. We didn't go through the channels.

"Like they ever would've let us paint that going through the channels," Williams added.

Cobb and Williams never imagined their image would last this long. They had previously done such work in other places that was erased within a week. Instead their Grizzly still stands.

"Seventeen years later I got to show my son," Cobb said. "That was the coolest part of the whole thing. I never imagined showing my son my paintings."

Although the building walls will stay, there is a distinct possibility of the building renovation including a new coat of paint. Principal Schlecht hopes the image will survive.

"We're going to have to figure this one out," Schlecht said. "I don't want to say goodbye to that mural. I do not. It's got staying power. It's an icon now."

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.

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