Sometimes it seems Seattle is painted in shades of gray. With gray skies above us and gray streets surrounding us, it's easy to miss the beauty below us. Art right beneath our feet.
We caught up with artist Russell Muits in Seattle's Pioneer Square, just as he was bringing a splash of color to these under-appreciated pieces...that just happen to be underfoot.
Muits not only notices manhole covers, he sees the splendor in them and celebrates it - capturing their imprints with ink and canvas. The obsession started seven years ago.
"I was working on 4th and University," he said. "And there's a really cool cover right there on the corner. One day I was standing there and said to my friend 'We should make a print of this.' I...grabbed some ink, came back down the hill and made a print, and I basically fell in love with it."
Since then, Muits has become an expert of sorts - some of these manhole covers (also called hatch covers) are over a hundred years old.
"There are certain designs that are universal and have withstood the region and the test of time but each city has its own marks," said Muits. "Some of the older ones will even have the neighborhood or a specific address, which is really amazing. So that's what drives me - going to a new city and finding these new treasures, and hopefully making a print."
He's crisscrossed the country on the hunt for unique covers.
"Seattle, Portland, Maine, Boston, New York, Connecticut, Philly, DC, Baltimore, Nashville, Memphis, Pittsburg, NOLA, Chicago, Detroit, Flint Michigan, Minneapolis, Milwaukee," he recites. "[I'm] almost there - I'm trying to get one from every state."
Muits estimates he probably has around 400 unique prints. And when looking for inspiration for his covers?
"The manhole tells me."
No matter where the ideas come from, the designs are striking. Passersby stop in their tracks.
"This hard part is the letters," he said. "What's cool about the prints is you never know what you're going to get. Like Bob Ross said, 'There's no mistakes, just happy little accidents.'"
And if Muits gets stuck - he asks for help from whoever happens to be walking by.
- "Excuse me. Question for you. What color should I make the center? Yellow, orange or red?"
- "Orange," said the man.
- "Not red? Orange. Alright buddy thanks. I hope he's right!"
With the metal manhole cover transformed by happy hues - it's time to make the print. Once he puts the canvas down there's no going back.
"This is where you get to feel all the fonts and letters, marking and dings, irregularities in the moldings… it's my favorite part."
And then the moment of truth. "I think I'm feeling pretty good… I had some guy consult on the color. I guess we'll have to see," Russell said.
"Wow! Its beautiful. Yes I love it and its not that often I have that reaction. I feel like I have to find the orange guy and show him. The orange is perfect," Muits said with a grin.
The environmentally friendly ink will wash away the next rain. But the imprint will last forever on canvas, and on Russell's heart.
"I was thinking this morning that one of the most satisfying parts is people saying, 'Hey I never noticed that…' and around this neighborhood I've had people say 'I've walked past this for 20 years and never seen it', and once you start looking, you can't stop."