“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
by Chason Gordon
- The Capitol Hill Times -
You’ve probably seen the wizard around Capitol Hill, thought you may not be aware of it. He has all the proper wizard identification: a long-flowing beard, a staff and pipe, and wise, knowing eyes. His quirky charm certainly leaves an impression, aided by the fact that over 900 of these corrugated plastic signs have appeared around Seattle. It may seem like the wizard is running for mayor, but it’s actually the work of Ryan Henry Ward, the Seattle artist whose murals mete out whimsy one wall at a time.
Though Ward doesn’t sign the pictures with his usual “henry,” the Compassion Wizard has a strong following. Fans created a Google map to record various sightings, and Ward runs a popular Facebook page where the wizard imparts sweet, inspirational advice. I spoke with him to learn a little more about it.
CHT: Why did you decide to start spreading the image of the Compassion Wizard?
Ward: About a year ago a friend of mine, this homeless guy Jeff, got cancer…and I watched his health deteriorate pretty quickly. He asked me if I could do a painting for him, and I was like, “You know what? What if I did a whole project that was inspired by you?” That’s kind of where it came out of…I put those signs up; I also started a Facebook page, which posted compassion phrases and different photographs of compassionate leaders and things around the internet based around compassion. And if people were keeping up with that, and saw the images on the street, they’d be reminded of compassion. That was the overall intention.
On a surface level, wizards seem approachable. Was there a reason you chose a wizard?
Yeah. I guess I believe that compassion is born from the imagination. We have to be able to imagine the world better than it is, like if someone’s suffering, we have to imagine them getting better. It enables us to help them. To me, imagination and magic are of the same realm. It’s something for younger people; they could understand where compassion comes from a little better if they could understand that it comes from that magic place, where elves and wizards and Santa Claus and Sasquatch live. The wizard is the symbol of magic, and magic is the source of compassion.
What was the process of putting all of these up? Was it exhausting? Was it fun?
It was fun – I didn’t do it all in one night. I had a thousand signs; I put most of them up over the course of the year. I started last February and probably finished a month ago.
Are they all still up?
A lot of them have been taken down. There are some neighborhoods where you get some righteous guy that wanted to take them down for whatever reason, like Phinney Ridge. There was some guy who thought it was his mission to take them down, so that’s what he did. He was posting on the Phinney Ridge blog to try to get people to support his cause. They’re not that hard to take down. I just told him I disagree with his point of view.
Except for that guy, has the response been positive?
I would say most of it has been. Capitol Hill has had a ton of positive response, Georgetown, Fremont…they’ve been up for quite a while. Capitol Hill seems like it’s gotten the best.
Have you ever been stopped while you were putting one up?
No. There was one instance on Capitol Hill when cops stopped me and asked me what I was doing, and I explained it to them. They were like, “that is way cool.”
I’ve noticed you tend to paint gnomes and frogs and fish and cows in your murals. Is there a reason you choose those types?
For me there’s this imaginary world that’s been with me since childhood. With all the canvasses and murals, I’m trying to show the world that I perceive. I call that world the Golden Realm. It’s a place of imagination we all share. It’s an important place to foster if we want to have a compassionate world.
Maybe I’m reaching here, but in some of the murals it almost looks as if the animals are shocked to be there. Is there something to that?
Yeah, I think they’re aware they’re being observed. They’re caught in this moment of time, and that’s what all my murals are: this snapshot in time. They’re surprised that someone’s actually looking into their world.
Have any people told you about instances where the wizard sign inspired them, and/or caused them to be more compassionate?
I’ve heard lots of people inspired by it: People with road rage shifting their moods to be more present and happy. People being reminded to be kind to people. Also, people inspired to write stories about the Compassion Wizard.
It’s amusing and fun to discover the wizard signs around Seattle. Has anything in this city caused you a similar feeling?
I get that feeling from a lot of things. There is a small street art movement in Seattle, and the artists that belong to it inspire me. It’s like there are hidden treasures everywhere. If you keep your eyes open you can see lots of little surprises out there, especially in sticker and wheatpaste form.
You can see more of Ward’s work at Short Stop Coffee and www.ryanhenryward.com.