Meet Austin Picinich, A 2023 Scholarship Recipient

Meet one of our scholarship winners, Austin Picinich. Austin resides in the state of Washington and has been utilizing “the power of public art” to educate, promote, and bring the community together. 

“I realized that public art – when combined with a community-focused purpose – could have a much larger impact and inspire others to make a difference. My simple idea grew into a big idea: using my love of art to educate, excite, and engage my community in restoring Juanita Creek. The “Save Our Salmon Mural” was born.”

Austin has worked hand in hand with Urban ArtWorks and North Lake Washington SalmonWatchers to plan and carry out the project of painting multiple murals throughout his community. Austin designed these murals himself, he’s been interested in art from a young age and found an excellent way to connect his love of art, help out the local fauna, and bring the community together in the process. He writes,

“I began sharing my “Save Our Salmon” idea in the Juanita community. I interviewed students, stewards, and neighbors. I spoke with long-time residents who remembered Juanita Creek 50 years ago, describing when salmon “painted the stream red” – and to those who, like me, were previously unaware of Juanita Creek. However, no one knew how they could be part of the solution. While talking with my community, I was introduced to a neighbor who happened to be a “SalmonWatcher” for Juanita Creek. They connected me with Dr. Jeff Jensen, a University of Washington biology professor who teaches a salmon-themed class at UW each fall. Dr. Jensen is the founder of North Lake Washington SalmonWatchers, a volunteer group of students building egg boxes and incubators in Lake Washington’s streams, including Juanita Creek.”

“Although there are local groups like SalmonWatchers that focus on salmon sustainability, efforts have little emphasis on driving awareness among everyday community members. The “SalmonWatchers” team was composed of only a dozen UW students. Because I had been ‘one of those people’ who were once unaware of Juanita Creek, I realized greater community engagement was necessary. I sought to educate everyday residents how they could help restore Juanita Creek too.”

Austin’s project was never about just him as an artist. It was always deeply rooted in helping Juanita Creek, the salmon that call it home, and the community surrounding it. 

“While I might be able to paint a mural by myself, the real power of the “Save Our Salmon Mural” came from engaging community members. My goal was to not just create a mural that’s nice to look at – but a mural that teaches my community to protect salmon, and engages my community in creating it. I truly wanted to involve the entire community. I spoke at Kirkland City Council, Kirkland Cultural Arts Commission, Juanita Neighborhood Association, Kiwanis, and Rotary clubs to rally support. In total, I brought together over 20 community groups for my Juanita Creek SOS Mural.”

“I developed a unique “Community Paint Day” format that was interactive and educational. I first designed, outlined, and color-coded my salmon-themed design onto the blank wall in advance. Then, in April 2022, I hosted a Community Paint Day leading 170+ volunteers, ages 4 to 74, to “paint-by-number” my design – transforming the 112-foot wall into a vibrant mural. I also integrated an educational aspect into the Community Paint Day by partnering with Dr. Jeff Jensen and North Lake Washington SalmonWatchers. NLWSW provided onsite docents educating our 400 community attendees, and many attendees signed up as SalmonWatchers during the event.”

Austin has completed three total murals with the fourth coming this July. Over 350 volunteers will be helping complete the mural. 

In an interview Austin stated, 

“Putting in the work to plan for so many community members to help is challenging. There are a lot of permits we have to work on getting from the city for various things and many other things to plan for, it can take up to six months just to put the event together. I could paint the mural myself to avoid this work, but seeing community members connect with the mural and come together to accomplish the final product is more than worth it. I love that these volunteers are able to drive by the mural every day and say, “Hey! I helped paint that salmon’s tail!” 

Austin will be attending the University of Washington in the fall and plans to continue his work with the Save Our Salmon initiative. He plans to major in marketing, which he will use directly to market the merchandise he designs and sells where 100% of the proceeds are donated directly to SalmonWatchers. The stickers, magnets, t-shirts, etc. can be found in local Washington gift shops and on his online Etsy shop. 

Our team at HonorsGradU was blown away by Austin’s selflessness when he noticed a problem in his community and worked hard to make a change. He is literally building a better future for the Juanita community and we are honored to consider him a 2023 scholarship recipient.