Before she moves to Santa Fe, Lizbeth Cort paints the first fire hydrant as a test for an upcoming Oak Harbor Arts Commission project. Photo provided by the Oak Harbor Arts Commission

Oak Harbor fire hydrant gets whimsical makeover

Artist Lizbeth Cort resigned her position on the Oak Harbor Arts Commission and is moving to Santa Fe for a fresh start following the death of her husband, Larry Cort, in 2015.

But not before leaving her permanent mark on the city.

On July 20, Cort showed up on Pioneer Way with her paint supplies, chose a fire hydrant and set about the work of bringing it to life.

The idea came from a proposal by councilwoman Tara Hizon to the Arts Commission that artists in the community could apply to paint fire hydrants.

Therese Kingsbury, member of the Arts Commission, said the commission loved the idea so much that it has a working plan for artists to apply to adopt hydrants and then paint them all simultaneously during a street fair next spring.

“It would make sense to add the hydrant painting to an existing event, where people would be able to come and make the city more vibrant, but there is still much to work out,” said Cac Kamak, senior planner for City of Oak Harbor.

Kamak said that before anyone could paint the hydrants en masse, several factors must be ironed out. For example, the city needed to test the waters, see what paints worked best, how long it would take, how many mixing cups would be needed, etc.

That’s where Cort’s paint project came in.

“The commission decided I could be their guinea pig,” Cort joked. “I’m used to painting with water color, so painting on a round surface is hard.”

No matter how difficult the change in medium might have been, Cort’s artwork passed the test with community members.

“All day people, when they came to the stoplight, rolled down their windows and said that it was really great, that it’s so great something like this is going on in Oak Harbor.”

While Cort’s test showed that the project can be completed, it also exposed areas of interest to the city that will need to be explored before a potential painting extravaganza, according to Kamak.

“It was a successful test run, in that all the paint stuck,” Kamak said. “It took some creative painting, because it is not like painting a canvas with layers and so forth.”

Cort’s painting ended up taking about five hours, Kamak said, which was longer than previously expected.

Apparently, Cort needed to take several breaks to let the work-in-progress dry, so any potential festival planners will have quite the task on their hands.

Kamak said the commission will need to continue to work with the fire department on obtaining the right kind of paint, and will need to accurately prepare artists for the undertaking of painting a hydrant beforehand. Both of these steps will be critical so as to prevent officials from having to “put out so many fires” the day of such an event.

Despite leaving for a new life in Santa Fe next week, Kingsbury said Cort made the hydrant a priority, adding that as folks drove by they congratulated the artist on her most peculiar choice of canvas.

“Lizbeth squeezed the hydrant into her busy schedule to leave something for Oak Harbor, and to be the start of something.”

Cort’s fresh start is coming in the form of a grand adventure, starting with a one-way ticket. As Kingsbury has it, the only person Cort knows in Santa Fe is her Realtor.

“She is taking a leap,” Kingsbury said. “She doesn’t know a single person down there. She just picked a town, a liberal haven for the arts, and is looking to start a new life.”

Ultimately, her move is bittersweet for her, Cort said.

“I really have mixed emotions about this, because I moved to Whidbey 15 years ago to marry Larry, who was head of the project that reconstructed Pioneer Way, so painting the hydrant was emotional for me,” Cort said. “I see it as my gift to the city and a tribute to Larry.”

Artist Lizbeth Cort leans into the fire hydrant she painted on July 20. Photo provided by the Oak Harbor Arts Commission.

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