Healing can take place in unusual places.
For Nancy Hakala, that place was on a mechanical lift hovering over a strange town.
Painting a mural in downtown Oak Harbor, nearly 1,000 miles from her home, Hakala was able to escape the constant reminders of a life event that turned her world upside down.
One brush stroke at a time, she added new life to a bare wall while also trying to build herself back up from personal devastation.
“I needed to heal to find a way to continue with my life,” Hakala said. “In the big picture of things, the mural was sort of a life-saver for me.”
Three weeks after leaving Whidbey Island, Hakala is back home in Auburn, Calif., feeling a renewed sense of purpose. New art projects have started and the future is looking up again.
Just a few months ago, none of this seemed possible.
“I literally didn’t even want to go outside,” she said.
Hakala lost her only child in December when her son suddenly and unexpectedly died in his sleep.
David Potter, 42, left behind his wife, two young daughters and one grief-stricken mother unable to come to grips with the new reality.
Hakala had raised her son alone. Their bond was special as they constantly stayed in touch.
She was so proud of her son, who worked with lighting on the sets of movies and television shows in Los Angeles.
“I just can’t believe how much I counted on him for everything,” Hakala said.
A well-known Sacramento-area mural artist, Hakala shut down after her son died, withdrew from her work and became depressed.
It wasn’t until her sister in Greenbank told her in April about a mural project on Whidbey Island that was seeking an artist that she decided that a change in venue could be a healthy idea.
Hakala was hired to paint a massive mural on the side wall of a Pioneer Way building that depicted Oak Harbor’s history. Karen Mueller, owner of Wind & Tide Bookshop, spearheaded the mural project and began a fundraising campaign.
With her husband’s blessing, Hakala traveled to Whidbey Island and began work on the 9,000-square-foot mural in July.
It was her first mural since her son’s passing.
For seven weeks, she worked on the project, finishing on Sept. 1.
“I think it gave my emotions time to rest while I concentrated on doing the work at hand,” Hakala said. “I don’t think people realize, painting is really hard work. You really have to concentrate on what you’re doing. I think it let me put my mind on one thing and allowed my emotions to rest from the sorrow. As I continued to do that, it built me back up and took me to a better, stronger place. It made me grateful for all the people who came by. I couldn’t believe the kindness that was all around me every single day. It was so healing for me. People don’t know what the words meant to me. It really made a difference.”
Hakala said she was lifted by the people of Oak Harbor’s generosity and daily acts of kindness.
Employees from Diamond Rentals, which donated the aerial lifts, and members of the Oak Harbor Fire Department routinely checked on her safety. Ron Hancock, chaplain for the fire department, was a constant presence, bringing her water and introducing her to others who made her feel welcome.
Hakala said Diamond Rentals owners Jeff and Mary Jo Lambert “went above and beyond” acts of generosity by letting her use the aerial lifts required to do the mural project for nearly two months.
She said that paint and supplies were donated by Sherwin-Williams, Home Depot and Island Paint and Glass.
Hakala said she also benefited greatly from the wisdom of local historian Peggy Darst Townsdin, PBY Memorial Foundation Museum members Will Stein and Wil Shellenberger, librarians, tribal archivists and others who aided in her education of local history.
“Everybody that I met knew the history and loved Oak Harbor so much,” Hakala said.
The mural resembles an open book resting on a wooden table. Included are seven historic images spanning seven decades, including the construction of Deception Pass Bridge in the 1930s.
Jamie’s Signs, a boat painting and lettering company in La Conner, was hired to do the finishing touches on the mural, including a banner that reads “Historic Downtown Oak Harbor” and a dedication to the community.
The mural has been warmly embraced in the downtown.
“Cars slow down,” Mueller said.
“I feel really blessed to have the opportunity to paint a prominent wall for such a beautiful town,” Hakala said. “I hope I set a new trend in town. I hope that there will be many more murals that will employ artists in the area. There are such great artists on Whidbey Island, many people with great ideas.”
Hakala said she was approached by other business owners on Whidbey Island about future mural projects, so she expects to return. But she doesn’t expect those projects to hold the sort of meaning she feels for this one.
She allowed Oak Harbor High School art students she mentored to add some special touches on the mural. But she reserved one special touch for herself.
In one image of a downtown scene, a solitary figure stands in front of a blue wall beneath a blue sky with his hands in his pockets.
It’s someone dear to Hakala.
“That’s him,” she said.