Siding with the stars and stripes at a home for the brave

SEATTLE — After 9/11, Rich Ormbrek bought the biggest flag he could find — one about 16 feet wide — and nailed it to the eaves of his bright orange house in Ballard, Wash.

"We wanted to let the terrorists know they can't intimidate us," said Ormbrek, now 70.

But there was a little problem with Ormbrek's show of patriotism: Wind constantly blew the flag to the ground or swept it atop his home, sometimes tearing it. Not even attaching the bottom of it to 10 strong stakes stabbed into the lawn worked.

"My son got really tired of getting the flag off the roof," he said. Daniel Ormbrek — one of Ormbrek's four kids — is in the Army Reserve now after a tour in Afghanistan. "He'd come out this window up there to get it, and I got worried he could eventually get really hurt."

So, in 2002, father and son found a way to display a flag so that the wind would never knock it down again: They painted a 20-foot-wide flag onto the side of their house at Northwest 73rd Street and 27th Avenue Northwest.

But Ormbrek's work on the flag wasn't done. Since then, the flag's red and white stripes have been overtaken by dynamic rows of hand-painted Americana. Each of the flag's more than 300 — and counting — interchangeable painted tiles capture colorful images of American history, landmarks and pop culture, forming a picturesque mosaic that has become a neighborhood landmark.

The flag's bright colors initially alarmed Ormbrek's neighbor across the street. Ormbrek had used his house to display various political messages before, said Kathleen Galloway, who says she could never quite label him left, right, moderate or libertarian. She wondered what message was coming next.

"I thought, 'Maybe it'll fade,' and my husband said, 'No! He's using special anti-fade paint!' " Galloway, 57, recalled. "But when he started putting the paintings up, I realized this was folk art."

Since then, she says, she's loved it as much as all the other people who drive and walk by and take pictures. Ormbrek loves watching neighborhood kids poke around his yard to get a closer look at it.

"Now it's not political at all. It's more about what I love about this country," Ormbrek said. "We're blessed to have people from all over the world that make this country what it is."

Ormbrek fits about 160 to 180 of the fiber-cement tiles onto his house with screws, and then switches some in and out throughout the year.

Some depict classic landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, St. Louis Arch and Cadillac Ranch. There are pop-culture-based ones featuring the Wizard of Oz, The Flintstones and The Simpsons. Others highlight Norman Rockwell-type moments, such as the one sandwiched between Fourth of July fireworks and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house: a row of little girls in tutus fidgeting on a bench.

But one of the first tiles painted for the display, the one with "We the People" scrolled on it, has stayed in place at the top for more than 10 years.

"That's the most important one," Ormbrek said. "It kind of set the tone for the rest of them."

Most of the tiles are painted by Margaret Smart, a foster mother of Ormbrek's late wife. The Camano Island, Wash., woman perfected a way of painting on the cement tiles first with primer, then with acrylics. Ormbrek tops the tiles off with a layer of spar varnish, a product usually used on boats, then carefully screws the tiles onto the exterior slats of his house.

"Just lately I told him, that whole flag has to be filled up by now," Smart said. "And he said, 'I know, my kids yell at me because there are tiles all over the house, but I like to change them around.' He's addicted to it."

Ormbrek says it was his wife's Native American family who taught him how to love collaborative art that celebrates heritage. Since the 1970s, a replica of a Tlingit-Haida entryway he and his wife's family made together has arched over his front door.

In that same spirit, several other family members and friends of all ages have contributed to the collage on Ormbrek's American flag. One of those tiles is faded because the son of a friend forgot the paint-primer step, but it still earned a spot on the flag.

"His isn't up there because it's the best painting. It's up there because he was a 12-year-old who wanted to be part of this," Ormbrek said.

And, this year, Ormbrek says he's extending the invitation to participate in the flag to a wider circle of people. He's not big on email, so anyone who wants to take part can send him a letter: 2615 N.W. 73rd St., Seattle, WA 98117.

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