North Bend's Newest Mural Inspired by Don McMichael's "Whale Hugger"

North Bend's Newest Mural Inspired by Don McMichael's "Whale Hugger"

By SARAH KELLY for Nicart Gallery & the Bay Area Artist's Association Perspective eNewsletter

Sarah Kelly is a Freelance Journalist who's articles have appeared in many newspapers and journals including the lifestyle section of The World. 

On Saturday, November 18, 2023 Books by the Bay in North Bend held its, Meet the Mural Artists event. The two-hour-long meet and greet brought together all the artists who contributed to the new mural adorning the large outer wall of the bookstore, including renowned local artist Don McMichael who painted the original image that was adapted for the mural. Also in attendance was the original Books by the Bay sign artist, Bill Blumberg, as well as a representative of Friends of Coos County Animal Shelter (FOCCAS). Don was at the event to hand out signed prints of his painting. Guests did not have to pay for the posters but instead were kindly asked to donate what they could to help the local animal shelter. Don stated that he makes “a good enough living without having to make money off of things like this. So this was to donate to the local animal shelter.”

The current owner of Books by the Bay, Harold Midyette teamed up with Patrick Erm of Artworks Unlimited to paint a larger-than-life version of Don McMichael’s gorgeous “Whale Hugger” painting. This amazing new treat for the eyes was made possible in part by a $5,000 grant that Harold received from the North Bend Urban Renewal Agency’s Micro Mural Grant Program. The program aims to help revive and renew North Bend by promoting the arts while beautifying the city.

Mural Progression Pic

Original sign artist Bill Blumberg

Stepping back in time, some 25 years ago, Bill Blumberg spent around a week carefully creating the Books by the Bay sign. The lovely sign has been an icon of the store for years, its beautiful design welcoming all who see it. According to Harold, the glass sign that hangs on the interior of the store, as well as the calligraphy writing that lines the walls was done by Bill.

When creating the original sign work, Bill recalls how happy he was to have a client like Trish McMichael, who was the owner at the time. She allowed him creative freedom, telling him to go ahead and do whatever he wanted. “I turned a lot of jobs down,” said Bill, explaining that as an artist it’s often too stifling to work with someone who demands a large amount of control over the creative process. Therefore working on the Books By the Bay sign all those years ago was such a fun experience for him. He was even able to secretly paint the names of Trish’s children on two of the books, “Emily’s Album” and “Nathan’s Travel” as a touching surprise for her.

Bill, who has been an artist since a very young age, said that everything he’s ever done has been related to art. He takes great inspiration from the coastal area in which he lives. He spent 20 years teaching art and calligraphy at a local college. “That was a lot of fun. I never crashed or burned out like a lot of my peers. I met a lot of really wonderful people,” he said, adding that many of those very people were the artists present at the event. After having not seen their faces in about 25 years, the day felt more like a reunion for him than anything else.

Original “Whale Hugger” artist, Don McMichael

According to Harold Midyette, for around the last 35 years, he had been asking his long-time friend, Don McMichael, to paint something on the wall of his bookstore. However, Don did not feel comfortable enough to paint a mural high up on the wall. With Don’s permission, Harold reached out to Patrick Erm and got the ball rolling. 

Don is a self-taught artist and while he has been painting for a large portion of his life, he did not start off as a painter. Right out of high school, he joined the Coast Guard where he spent 20 years along the Oregon coast running lifeboats and doing search and rescue. During his time in the Coast Guard, Don would often have long uneventful watches at Winchester Bay in which he would amuse himself by drawing cartoons of his fellow Coast Guard buddies. “I’d sit up there in the middle of winter and there’s no boats going by … but we had to maintain lookout. … This one guy was Italian and had a big black beard… I could do a caricature of him in my sleep. So I would get off the night before at 4:00 in the morning and I would stick that picture on the bulletin board. … When I got up I’d go out and look and the cartoon was gone. So I figured he’d probably
gotten mad and ripped it up,” said Don who went on to say that years later he learned that the chief of the station had been collecting his drawings.

Whale Huggers by Don McMichaelWhen Don retired from the Coast Guard he decided to try his hand at making a living off his artwork. “I just tried the artwork and my wife got a part-time job. The kids were in school and so I was able to stay home and practice and figure out what to do and how to do it,” said Don. Originally he had thought to go to college and study art. However, he ended up only spending one term in college where he did foundry, pouring bronze and like metals. He recalls being advised by a couple of local artists to be cautious of going to art school because he had such a unique art style and they feared his teachers might alter it. “I never even thought about that. So that was good advice,” he said.

Don’s whimsical ocean-themed artwork typically features ships and whales. He is a well-known artist who has had galleries all over the United States, including California, Maui and South Carolina. His work has even been sold internationally. “I did a huge painting … probably 12 feet by 4 feet and it went to Indonesia into a big hotel,” said Don.

Don's medium of choice is oil paints, liking how slow drying they are. “The paints would dry too fast before I could figure out what I wanted to do so I just went with oil. It’s slow drying and I can figure out what I wanted to do,” he said. Don told of a time when he was painting a whale and did not like how it was turning so he decided to paint over it. This resulted in a wonderful accidental artistic discovery. “I looked at it and it was like a whale was coming towards you but he was in the distance. I pushed him way back so I did another painting close up,” he said. He now frequently incorporates this happy accident into his paintings. “Being self-taught you rely a lot on accidents,” he said as he
laughed, recalling the memory.

Over the years, Don created 20 playful posters for the Oregon Coast Music Festival. While he kept the original paintings he did donate the images to the festival so they could freely make posters. He has also taken many of his paintings to the Coos Art Museum where he’s sold them, giving half the earnings to the museum.

The particular piece used for the mural was originally painted back in 1992. The 24-inch by 48-inch painting still sits in the studio at his home. The “Whale Hugger” painting got its name due to the area in which Don lives. “I live in a lumber area where a lot of people come along … and they refer to themselves as tree huggers. When I heard that a couple of times I thought, well I’ll just do whale huggers,” he said.

The time it takes to finish each piece varies greatly, depending on numerous factors. He stated that he recently found a canvas that had been sitting in storage for around three years. The canvas only had an outline on it. He decided to pull out and finish it. The prolific artist also said that sometimes he even does a piece just for himself. Don loves painting and stated he “will probably never retire. I’ll always paint, even if it’s just with my fingernails, I’ll paint something."

Muralist, Patrick Erm

Muralist and owner of Artworks Unlimited, Patrick Erm humbly stated at the beginning of the event that, “This wouldn’t have happened without the original masters, Bill and Don. I just copied [their] work.” Patrick is a long-time painter who has done artwork and signage for people all over town through the last several decades. “Doing signs is a way I can do art for a living without having to do the starving artist thing. So I was able to feed my family pretty comfortably,” he stated.

Patrick spent about three weeks recreating and adapting the original artwork of Don McMichael into a mural of epic proportions. Before starting the mural, Patrick and Don met several times, working together to come to an agreed-upon look for it. Patrick stated that Don was open to everything and that working with him came easy. The two artists were able to alter the original image into one that perfectly fit the bookstore.

The first change they made was to flip the image 180 degrees. “We figured it’d work better with the shack and the kids over the right-hand side where the road is,” said Patrick who used Photoshop for this process. He also photoshopped out the original girl hugging the whale, who was meant to be Don’s daughter, Kelly. She was removed so that they could add in Harold’s two children with his ex-wife, and previous Books by the Bay owner, Trish. Patrick and Don were happy to fulfill his request.

Once the new image was finalized, Patrick was able to start work on the wall. However, before he could put any paint down several cracks had to be repaired. Next, they had to repaint the sign for the bookstore as it had faded severely over the years. When all of that was finished Patrick, with some help from his daughter and her husband, got to work drawing a massive grid over the wall. He said that he could have chosen to project the image but instead decided to go “old school” and grid it out. He also drew a matching grid over the print of the original. This allowed him to ensure that each part was painted in the correct spot and was properly scaled up. “The original picture is 16 inches by 32 [inches]. Well, the wall is 16 feet so I just marked off 32 feet,” said Patrick. He created one-foot squares on the wall to match the one-inch squares on the print. With the grid in place, Patrick stated that it was just “a matter of connecting all the dots,” similar to how you would do a paint-by-number. He first drew in the basic shapes and then filled them in, adding details to finish it off. He painted one whale at a time. Since
he was using water-based paints, they dried very quickly, allowing him to work more efficiently. “I could take a break and by the time I came back, it’s already dry,” he said. 

According to Patrick, he easily put in 10 to 12 hours each day working on the mural. “I was here at about 7:30 in the morning setting up and I wouldn’t leave until 7:30 - 8:00 in the evening. I’m used to [long days]. In my shop, throughout all these years … there were often times when at least once a month I’d start at like 8:00 Tuesday morning and wouldn’t get done until 6:00 Wednesday evening. I would work through the night and all up into the next day,” he stated.

Doing such a large-scale painting was not intimidating for Patrick who is used to
creating large images due to his business. “It’s funny, the size of the project didn’t
intimidate me at all. Doing the sign, the whales… none of that intimidated me. Doing the water intimidates me. It’s a physical thing without a physical shape. You can’t pick it up and say, okay here’s a handful of water, let’s look at it,” said Patrick. He also added that since he does a lot of illustration work he has his own style of painting, while Don has his. Due to this, he had to do his best “interpretation of [Don’s] water,” altering his style to more closely match Don’s original painting.

Following Bill Blumberg’s example, Patrick also added titles to the books on the Books by the Bay sign as a fun tribute to everyone involved. They still have the two original ones that Bill painted, however, those are now accompanied by several new ones. “Raising Border Collies” was added for Don’s daughter Kelly and “The Trouble with Tribbles” was added for his son Kyle who is a big fan of Star Trek. Trish McMichael stated that “Patrick did the ‘P’ for Patrick and the ‘Mo’ for the other people involved and the ‘Smile You’re on Camera’ because as he was painting it people would come and take photos and not say anything to him.”

Mural Helpers

While the majority of the time Patrick worked on the mural by himself, he was able to get help for three days from fellow artists, Brad and Jana Johnson. Brad and Jana were able to take a few days away from their busy work and home life to travel from their house in Corvallis to help him. Jana helped paint the children and the boat, coming up with what it should look like based on the ideas that Patrick and Don gave her. Brad was kept busy primarily working on the whales. “I painted like five of the whales and the boat house,” he said. “It went fast. … We had a blast doing it.”

Brad and Jana are both artists and are familiar with mural paintings, having painted many themselves. “We’ve done half a dozen or more murals,” Jana said. While she is a fine artist painter by trade, Brad is a sign and graphic artist. Brad was comfortable painting such a large image up high, however, Jana was a bit more nervous about being up in the air. “I do a lot of 100-foot signs, hand painted, 40 feet in the air,” Brad said.

Jana has been painting nearly her whole life, discovering her calling around five years old. Brad figured it out a little later in life, right after college, at which point his love for shaping letters and calligraphy cemented his future career.

Both Brad and Jana typically work from home, loving the ability to do so. However,
when Patrick asked them to help out with the Books by the Bay mural, they jumped at the idea of spending a few days in the beautiful coastal town. Patrick also called on his wife Marie Erm and his daughter’s friend, Kyla Moen, for additional help.

Marie and Kyla helped with painting some of the water at the bottom of the mural. “[I’ve been] friends with Patrick’s daughter since we were little kids. So he just called me for an extra set of hands to help,” Kyla said, adding that she worked on one of the first layers of the water. The water portion was painted in several layers to add the different colors, shapes and depth required to make it look like the ocean. She blocked off a full day to help Patrick out, spending about eight hours working on the mural.

According to Kyla, she has not currently been as active in the arts as she would like to be so she was excited to have the opportunity to assist with the project. Her main love for the arts lies in ceramics, having been entranced by sculpting during her school days.

Books by the Bay is located at 1875 Sherman Avenue in North Bend and can be
reached by calling: (541) 756-1215.

Muralist Patrick Erm of Artworks Unlimited is located in Coos Bay and can be reached by calling: (541) 404-7325.

Artist Don McMichael of North Bend can be reached by

Back to blog