LAKE FOREST PARK — On an 85-degree September day when the air quality index reached “very unhealthy” levels, more than 190 volunteers gathered near two concrete barriers for a community paint day near Pfingst Animal Acres Park and Brookside Elementary School in the Seattle suburb of Lake Forest Park.

A Kirkland 17 year old with a knack for bringing people together gathered the group. With hands covered in lime green and red acrylic paint, Juanita High School senior Austin Picinich tasked the volunteers with painting a 104-foot and an 84-foot mural with an important message, spelled in all capital letters: “SAVE OUR SALMON.”

What he and local community groups wanted people to realize: There are salmon in McAleer Creek, which flows beneath the mural, and everyday people can help with the restoration of native kokanee salmon populations in Lake Washington and neighboring bodies of freshwater.

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What led this teenager to care about salmon so much that he spent months partnering with more than a dozen community groups, mobilizing more than 370 volunteers over two community paint days that helped raise more than $17,000 for North Lake Washington SalmonWatchers and the Lake Forest Park Stewardship Foundation?

It started with a blank wall in Kirkland.

Picinich would drive past the 112-foot canvas on the Spud Fish & Chips building every day on the way to Juanita High School. Picinich — who’s been painting since he was 7 years old — wanted to paint it.

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“It’s been blank my whole life, the whole time I’ve seen it,” Picinich said. “There’s never been anything painted there and it’s across from a park where so many people see it.”

After attending the First Tee Innovators Forum, a leadership summit designed to empower teens to develop community service projects, last October, Picinich developed a plan: He would lead a public art project.

“I didn’t know what it was going to be painted of. I just wanted to do it,” he said. “It was kind of obvious that since it was right next to Juanita Creek, I was like, well, we have to paint salmon then, or something related to the creek.”

A family friend had told Picinich stories over the years about how there used to be tons of salmon in Juanita Creek, but that salmon populations are now declining.

Thousands of little red fish called kokanee salmon used to live in local streams, said Jeff Jensen, a Harvard doctorate recipient in biology and a University of Washington, Bothell, professor who’s been studying and leading salmon restoration efforts for years. There were big declines in kokanee populations about the same time they opened the Ballard Locks in 1917, he said.

“It would be wonderful to bring back the little red fish that even the early settlers in this area thought of as being very unique and characteristic of the area,” Jensen said.

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After connecting with Jensen, Picinich found a cause. He wanted to inspire people; his murals would focus on salmon awareness and education.

“I think the more I’ve done these projects, the more I’ve learned and realized that so many people didn’t even know that the stream was there, and if they did, they didn’t even know that there were salmon in the stream,” Picinich said. “When they learn all about the salmon and they know the salmon are there, it’s easier to start to think about the salmon in your daily lives when you’re making decisions that impact.” 

That’s how the idea for the first Save Our Salmon mural was born.

Over the course of six months, Picinich designed a mural and partnered with Urban ArtWorks to organize his first community paint day at Spud Fish & Chips.

“I wanted to design it, but I couldn’t bring the whole project to life by myself,” Picinich said.

Carmel Mercado, a 35-year-old artist who connected with Picinich on social media and remembers thinking, “Oh, who is this kid?,” attended the first Save Our Salmon community paint day in April.

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“I think what Austin does is great,” Mercado said. “He’s so committed to sharing his art with the community. He does a great job of bringing folks together from different walks of life, right? So to be able to do community outreach in that way, I think, is very impressive, and so I wanted to help out.”  

Three weeks after the Kirkland mural was completed, the Lake Forest Park Stewardship Foundation reached out to Picinich for his help.

During the McAleer Creek culvert replacement project in 2015, gray concrete walls were also erected near Animal Acres Park, blocking viewing access to the creek and culvert below. A colorful mural would remind people about the salmon and slow down traffic near Brookside Elementary School, said Kim Josund, president of the Lake Forest Park Stewardship Foundation.

That goal led to Picinich’s second Save Our Salmon mural collaboration, this time with Urban Artworks, Lake Forest Park Stewardship Foundation, the city of Lake Forest Park, Westlake Ace Hardware, Puget Sound Starts Here, ShoreLake Arts, Trout Unlimited, Lake Forest Park Water District and UW Bothell’s biological sciences department.

It takes a village to paint a mural. Sometimes it takes a teen to bring a town together.

“Austin’s been fantastic,” Jensen said. “He’s incredibly energetic and clever about organizing people and getting a lot of enthusiastic people.”

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Greyson Phillips, who graduated with an environmental science degree from Washington State University, was among the enthusiastic volunteers on the September community paint day.

“Even small things like painting a mural, you know, is something that will help people to realize this is a pressing issue that I can take action to help with,” Phillips said.

And now Picinich’s work has been recognized nationally.

Picinich was named a 2022 winner of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes Sept. 20. His idea for the Save Our Salmon mural initiative was selected one of the most innovative projects out of the First Tee Innovators Forum, and he’s planning to expand the Save Our Salmon project, with the next paint location planned by North Creek in Bothell.

The high school senior is also inspiring future generations.

Judy Staudt and her daughter Ella, 9, were among the volunteers who stopped to contribute to painting the new local landmark on Sept. 10.

“It’s such a great colorful thing to have as part of the community because we drive here pretty much every day to take her to school,” Staudt said.

The concrete barriers are no longer blank. Instead, they remind us of the little red fish that calls Lake Washington home.