Mozelle Spencer in her "fish room" at Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center

Murals of Light

by Tammy Adamson-McMullen

When Mozelle Spencer was chosen to paint murals at Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center in Everett, Wash., she believed she was up to the task emotionally.

Mozelle has painted murals for many child-friendly facilities, such as Camp Corey in Carnation, Wash., the NFL Boys and Girls Club in New Orleans, and Vision House early education center in Renton, Wash., filling them with images that engage children and enhance spaces. Mozelle’s Seattle-area business, Mozelle by Design, provides a range of faux-finishing services, including tromp l’oeils and European and Venetian plasters. She also offers her expertise as a color consultant. But murals remain Mozelle’s specialty, and she especially loves creating them for children.

“This type of work makes my heart happy,” says Mozelle.

However, the Dawson Place project was different from others Mozelle had tackled, and as she began to paint, her heart grew heavy. “The topic is dark and hard to talk about,” Mozelle says, admitting that its emotional effect on her was unexpected.

Dawson Place is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children who have been victims of sexual or physical abuse by restoring their health and seeking justice.

Mozelle painted this frolicking dog in the first
medical room. Children often pet and kiss the
image, which is near the floor, before climbing
onto the scales nearby.

The center houses a multi-agency team that provides law enforcement, prosecution, victim advocacy, medical assessments, mental health counseling and referrals, and more.

While there are similar facilities in Washington State, Dawson Place is the only one to have law enforcement, prosecution, child protective services, a victim advocacy group and medical and mental health services under one roof. (See related article.) The need for such a center is great: The team on average sees 25 new child abuse victims each week and more than 1,200 each year.

Mozelle found that the medical examination rooms were especially difficult for her to handle at first. The ceilings of these rooms are covered in gummy hands. These are given to children to toss up to the ceiling where they join countless others as a dramatic symbol that the children are not alone, that other children have endured similar situations and are with them in support. The gummy hands, the child-size exam table and the medical equipment contained in the rooms were unnerving for Mozelle—made worse yet when an occasional gummy hand would come loose from the ceiling and brush her head as she painted.

Children toss gummy hands onto
the ceiling of the medical rooms,
where they join others as a sign
of support. In this exam area,
Mozelle painted a tree, singing birds
and buzzing bees.

However, as Mozelle interacted day after day with the caring professionals at Dawson Place and saw the important work being performed there, the darkness began to lift for her. She saw how Dawson Place transforms hurt into hope, and her sadness disippated.

“A shift happened,” she says, “and the painting flowed. I saw Dawson Place not as a place of darkness but as a place of light.”

Lighter hearted, Mozelle filled the first of the two medical rooms with gorgeous colors and calming scenes: furry brown rabbits sitting atop a hill, a lily pond filled with yellow ducks, a friendly owl peeking from a knothole, a frolicking black and white dog, and a tree filled with chirping bluebirds (which look discreetly away from the exam table).

In the second medical room, used for teenagers and young adults, Mozelle created a peaceful grove of white birch trees along the walls, with barely visible flocks of birds taking flight. Early on, Mozelle began the grove as a stand of trunks; later, she went back and painted budding leaves on the trees.

Peaceful birch trees can be found in the second medical room, used for teenagers and young adults.

A Step Toward Healing

In existence for 10 years, Dawson Place moved five years ago into its present location in a downtown office building. Dawson Place Executive Director Lori Vanderburg says it was a relief to comfortably fit all of the center’s agencies and 55 employees under one roof, but the institutional all-beige walls didn’t feel very child-friendly.

“They were a blah-beige,” she says, noting that it was apparent that a facelift was needed for Dawson Place to truly be a welcoming facility for people in crisis.

Two corporations’ employee groups were a godsend in providing the funding for the facelift. Amazon Local Love supplied materials and volunteer laborers to straight-paint offices and major spaces, upgrade bathrooms and provide other improvements, while the Employees Community Fund of Boeing Puget Sound supplied funds for the mural work.

The "Tree of Life" mural features a variety of
painting techniques.

Mozelle visited Dawson Place early in the funding process and attended a Boeing tour of the facility. At the time, the employee group had not yet earmarked the money for a specific purpose. During the question-and-answer period, Mozelle raised her hand and gave an impromptu plea for the mural project, expressing how fresh color and uplifting images can positively affect an environment and produce desired outcomes.

“I knew the impact I could have here,” Mozelle says. “So I spoke from the heart.”

Lori recalls that Mozelle’s impassioned words were pivotal in turning the tide of support for the project since, “I don’t know how to talk that (artistic) language,” she says. Soon after, the funding was allocated for the murals and Mozelle selected to create them.

One of Mozelle’s first tasks was to create a new color scheme for the Amazon Local Love straight-painting project. Mozelle chose a soothing palette and tacked up color swatches throughout the building to draw reactions from the staff, which were overwhelming enthusiastic. The palette—which has transformed the center top to bottom—features soft aquatic greens and blues, pastoral yellows and muted neutrals.

A close-up from the Tree of Life.

The new colors have greatly impacted the interview rooms, where children’s statements about their abuse are gathered and recorded at the request of law enforcement. None of these rooms, which lie in the middle of the building, has any windows or decoration. This is intentional, explains child forensic interviewer Heidi Scott, to ensure that children “don’t incorporate any type of fantasy into their disclosures.” Even so, the old blah-beige walls were stifling. Mozelle’s colors visually opened the areas and made them less intimidating for children to enter.

Additionally, Mozelle recently painted a large doghouse in the common area between interview rooms as well as a hilly path in the hallways leading to this area. In this second mural, Mozelle currently is painting farm animals as well as a friendly dog to point the way. The canine theme is particularly meaningful since Dawson Place uses service dogs to support children during the interview process.

Not quite finished, this mural runs the length of two
butting hallways leading to the interview rooms.
Mozelle is in the process of adding animals to the scene.

Though unfinished, the winding-path mural already has had a huge impact on children. Not long ago, Lori noticed to her astonishment that a little girl was skipping down the hallway as she held onto the leash of Harper, one of the service dogs. “I’ve never seen that happen before,” she reported to Mozelle.

Other murals have received similar reactions, including one nicknamed the "Tree of Life.” Here, Mozelle used various mural-painting techniques, including dry brushing and fine finishing, in creating a fully budded tree with spreading branches, intricately detailed butterflies and brightly colored tree frogs. The Tree of Life is the first mural that children encounter upon leaving the waiting room for the medical rooms. The mural goes a long way in abating children’s fears, says Lori, who often sees them touching the wings on the butterflies.

The waiting room, or "fish room," is Mozelle's coup d'etat. The room is filled with aquatic images
that demonstrate Mozelle's mural-painting skills. Mozelle added the shark at one little boy's request.

Without doubt, though, the paintings that receive the most attention are those in the waiting room, also known as “the fish room.” Mozelle has painted the entire room from ceiling to floor in an underwater sea theme that makes occupants feel as though they are swimming with happy turtles, schools of swordfish, colorful anemone, bobbing jellyfish and other creations.

“This is cool!” is a common reaction from children as they enter the fish room. Showcasing the balance, proportion, fine detailing and movement in Mozelle’s work, the fish room also includes a realistic sunken ship, whose gigantic mast rises up the wall and across the ceiling, thus continuing the image over a 190-degree angle. 

Holding children's attention, the sunken ship anchors a TV.

At one little boy’s request, Mozelle also painted a friendly shark that smiles down on children as they depart the fish room for the medical rooms. This has become one of the children’s very favorite images and speaks to the value of collaboration—which Mozelle says is key to a project’s success.

As she painted room to room, Mozelle regularly conferred with staff to make sure her murals were being well received by children and their families and were on track with the Dawson Place mission.

“Whenever you’re creating a beautiful space, it has to be about the people in the space,” she says. “So I always collaborate with my clients.”

With a few exceptions, Mozelle’s work is nearly finished at Dawson Place. However, she has committed to painting an enormous mural in a second entrance of the building.

Lori beams as Mozelle stands in the middle of the unfinished space and enthusiastically explains her vision for it, which will build on those she already has created to transform Dawson Place. “With each step,” Lori says, “it’s become more and more welcoming.”

A happy client, Dawson Place Executive Director Lori Vanderburg sits in her freshly
painted office with a model and color samples of the facility's planned exterior color
scheme. In addition to painting murals, Mozelle provided color consultations for
both the facility's interior and exterior.

Click on Pages 2-8 below for additional photos of Mozelle's Dawson Place murals.