The medium is the message for Monterey County murals.
Thursday, September 3, 1998
Thereis a cultural renaissance blooming throughout Monterey County, but it isn''t to be found in the area''s fine art museums or commercial art galleries
Instead, this flowering of art is to be found on the walls of city streets and local neighborhoods in the form of bold, colorful murals--monumental and at times controversial works of art that speak directly to the history and cultural aspirations of the county''s diverse ethnic populations.
What murals sometimes lack in the way of technical excellence is oftentimes secondary to their inspirational scale and themes, their strong narrative component, and their willingness to eschew art world trendiness in favor of overt social and political commentary.
"Usually mural art is controversial, and in my mind gets the public and artists together, and sparks a thoughtfulness of subject matter," says Richard Gadd, director of the Monterey Museum of Art.
"Personally as director, I feel if one is a novice on art, one can be moved and influenced by mural art," says Gadd. "I think it''s more important for a large mural to have a statement, but there are different intensities to a mural''s message. In a purely decorative and subliminal sense, a mural is better than a blank wall."
Mural art enjoys a rich tradition throughout California and Monterey County. Mural art made its first appearance locally adorning the interior walls of the early California missions, and many of the public and government buildings of Alta California.
The antecedents of these earliest murals can be traced back to the religious frescoes of the European Renaissance as well as the pre-Colombian cultures of Mexico, where wall paintings and elaborate wall carvings depicting historic and ritual events adorned most public spaces.
In the decades following the Mexican Revolution, artists like Diego Rivera, Clemente Orozco and David Sisquieros celebrated the history and triumph of Mexico''s peasant and working classes with brilliantly conceived, boldly executed mural paintings on public buildings throughout Mexico''s major cities. In a society that had yet to obtain widespread literacy for its people, the Mexican murals gave the people a broader understanding and appreciation of their history.
It was the mural renaissance in Mexico that in turn influenced decision makers with the Works Project Administration (WPA) here in the U.S. to commission artists to paint murals in the 1930s following the Great Depression.
According to Gadd, local artists like Bruce Ariss, Armin Hansen and Paul Whitman painted numerous murals in the Monterey area under the auspices of the WPA. The old Del Monte Hotel (now the Naval Postgraduate School) and Stillwell Hall still house murals from that era.
It wasn''t until the 1970s that mural art was reborn in Monterey County. With the rise of both the farmworker and Chicano movements, local Latino artists took to the streets and walls of their cities to reach out and give broader expression to Latino cultural and political aspirations.
"This came out of our hearts, our committment and feelings," says Philip Tabera, who in the ''70s spearheaded one the area''s first cultural enrichment programs to develop visual arts projects in local schools. "The intent was to get work for artists to do things that were culturally relevent."
Five years ago, Tabera founded the Brown N'' Proud Mural Project, that has produced five murals in East Salinas through the funding and cooperation of the Salinas Redevelopment Agency.
Brown N'' Proud served as the guiding spirit behind the new mural renaissance in Monterey County, and just recently completed a fifth mural called "Seed Of Hope," located at the corner of Alisal and Murphy streets in East Salinas.
According to lead muralist and designer Arturo Bolanos, who was born in Mexico City, "Seed Of Hope" carries on the great traditions of Mexican mural painting.
"The whole muralist movement was intended to address political and social issues," says Bolanos. Within that vein, Bolanos notes his original concept for his just-completed mural was to tackle the immigration issue, but was deemed too political by Salinas city officials.
"Seed Of Hope" is a tribute to the cultural continuity of the Mexican/Latino community, drawing heavily on pre-Columbian themes and symbols.
"Artifacts define the culture, and the race feeds off those artifacts even in harshest cultural terrain," says Bolanos. "The mural is a message of hope and speaks to Latinos here even if they don''t know the meaning of the symbology."
A random stroll through any city in Monterey County will uncover a host of newer murals painted by a diverse group of primarily younger artists. With themes ranging from Monterey County''s Mexican heritage, to the area''s natural history, artistic and literary heritage, mural art continues to be a thriving medium of expression.
"Mural art not only beautifies but motivates a community and inspires young artists to pursue art in general," says Merlin Brown, a full-time muralist and Seaside arts commissioner whose works grace numerous schools, churches and public buildings in Seaside.
"Murals bring to light the importance of diversity and ethnic unity, of bringing the races together in harmony," adds Brown. "It''s important to address issues at times, and what''s important to me as an artist is that we support art in communities and educate youth in community whatever the art."
It is this desire to promote both local communities and youth that is the guiding force behind the "One Voice" Murals Project ''98, which in part grew out of Tabera''s efforts to develop culturally relevent summer youth employment training programs.
Twelve murals in 11 different cities in the county, including Castroville, Pajaro, Salinas, Gonzales, Soledad and the Peninsula cities, have just been completed on the walls of both public and private buildings.
Funded in part by the federal Summer Youth Employment Training Program, 92 kids were supervised by 30 artists and paid minimum wage to paint the approximately 8-by-20 foot murals on local themes and history.
The program was sponsored by the Monterey County Office for Employment Training along with the Monterey County Private Industry Council (PIC). Both organizations worked closely with
Hartnell College and the Monterey County Historical Society to identify major historical events in the county that would be suitable for the historical murals project.
For Joseph Werner, executive director of the Private Industry Council, the mural project represents the perfect blending of a strong work ethic with an appreciation for the need to contribute to one''s community.
"We looked at the benefits of public art in relationship to working with disadvantaged youth who might benefit from working collaboratively," explains Werner. "The important thing was that by getting the kids to understand the local history, issues and events that have been the foundation of the community, they could become active participants in the community today and become future leaders tomorrow."
Just how controversial mural art can be was demonstrated when the initial sketches for a mural depicting scenes and events from the works of John Steinbeck were first presented to the oversight committee.
According to Mel Mathewson, a retired artist supervising the Steinbeck mural located on the PIA building adjacent to the new Steinbeck Museum, objections were raised over the impact on local gangs of replicating a famous photograph of Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata holding a rifle, as well as an eagle symbol associated with National Recovery Act that the commission said was a gang symbol.
"We had some conflict with the original design," admits Mathewson.
"We couldn''t show Zapata holding the rifle because of gangs, and the eagle once again was supposedly a gang symbol. The overview of the commission was they were concerned with what might inspire gangs. It was a form of benevolent censorship, but the motives were well-meaning and they were concessions I could live with."
Although controversy is often the source of a mural''s power, Seaside Arts Commission Chairperson Sandra Gray feels there is a place for murals that are purely decorative.
"I am not that keen on political messages, which sometime get in the way of viewing art," says Gray. "People can get more attuned to the actual message than the art itself, but it''s hard to put a mural in a public place without making a political impact."
Regardless of the risks of generating controversy, Gray says the city of Seaside is solidly behind promoting more mural art.
"Seaside is very supportive and is getting lots of requests for murals," says Gray, who indicates the city is considering adoption of specific ordinances to regulate mural art. "We''re working on an art-in-public-places document which we have presented to the city council and are trying to get on an agenda for a second reading for approval. Seaside is approving murals on a case by case basis, and the city''s architectural review board is accepting applications."
Salinas is another city that has been actively encouraging mural art throughout its downtown and residential neighborhoods.
According to Jesse Armenta, redevelopment project manager for the Salinas Redevelopment Agency, the city first established a program to promote mural art back in 1990 and sets aside up to $10,000 annually for the program.
"The agency has funded numerous murals on an annual basis, mostly in the Alisal business district," explains Armenta. "The program was designed to encourage young artists to get involved and to work with more skilled artists. By involving local kids in the neighborhoods and by participating and supporting the program, [residents and business owners] diminish the possibility of graffiti and vandalism.
"Common sense, no profanity and no gang slogans are the only rules," adds Armenta. "We don''t censor per se and try to give the artist freedom."