Bob von Elgg’s mural magnifies the little things in life
At first glance, Bob von Elgg’s nearly 18-foot mural is a tad daunting. Titled “Abundance for All: Raining Acorns,” the painting, which now graces the Mission St. facing wall of Safeway on the Westside, looks exactly as it sounds.
Colossal acorns falling from the sky may seem like an awfully random subject for a piece of art, but when the 52-year-old graphic designer and three other members of the city’s mural artist registry were invited to develop proposals on the theme of food and history in Santa Cruz, he could not think of a better muse.
“As I’m working on it, everybody who passes by is wondering about the big nuts—people have asked if Safeway is going nuts,” von Elgg laughs. In reality, the crop represents something much more. “The giant golden acorns in the mural ar e meant to serve as a welcoming gift to people entering Santa Cruz from the north and as a memorial to the Ohlone people who lived here for thousands of years.”
Rather than design a mural that would incorporate the agriculture that sustains our community today, von Elgg looked back to the 16th century when over 10,000 Ohlone or “Costanoan” tribelets occupied the coastal areas between Big Sur and San Francisco.
A hunter-gatherer community, the Ohlone lived entirely off the land with acorns being their main food crop. While each tribe had its own name and dialect, to mark the new year, they would all meet up at oak groves in the month of October to gather acorns for soup, mush, bread and other meals.
“Acorns really brought the community together,” says von Elgg, who relied on Malcolm Margolin’s book “The Ohlone Way” for research. “Since their lives revolved around acorns, oak trees were almost god-like to the Ohlone; they had a tremendous respect for them.”
Considering how ecologically minded Santa Cruzans are, it seems only appropriate to honor a group of indigenous people that knew how to preserve and make little impact on the land with their harvest traditions. Though von Elgg admits that few passerbys will immediately make the connection between the painting and the tribe, he plans to situate the mural with a bronze plaque detailing the historical symbolism.
But whether or not onlookers recognize the significance of the painting, its mere size is sure to draw attention. In order to create such a large scale piece of illustrative art, von Elgg had to take a laptop, a projector and a small generator down to Safeway at 6 o’clock one morning to sketch the silk screen design in the right lighting.
Rather than grid out the wall as is traditionally done with paintings of this size, von Elgg, who cofounded Bigfish Smallpond Design company, taped a felt pen to the end of a long pole and lightly drew the outline of the acorns. Although he had to borrow a lift to paint the details at the top and enlisted the help of Santa Cruz artist Nick Craig, von Elgg did most of the mural on his own.
Sponsored by the City of Santa Cruz Redevelopment Agency Matching Grant Mural Program, von Elgg’s painting proposal was selected one year ago by a committee of stakeholders that included representatives from Safeway and the City of Santa Cruz. Since July 1994, the Redevelopment Agency has sponsored over 15 mural projects around the city, including Marvin Plummer’s new “Jazz Alley” mural at Kuumbwa Jazz.
“Santa Cruz has been blessed with an abundance of local foods and this mural project offered a great avenue for telling that story,” says former Arts Commissioner Timerie Gordon, who helped choose von Elgg’s proposal. “The selection panel was drawn to the fun, contemporary visual language in Bob’s design and how it manages to convey a primary local foods story in such a unique way.”
After a month of toiling over texture, color and street appeal, the mural is finally finished and a reception to celebrate its completion is tentatively scheduled for early December. Von Elgg hopes that aside from its aesthetic appeal, the painting will be “a message for us to find abundance in simple things.”
Come see von Elgg’s handiwork at 2203 Mission St., Santa Cruz. To watch a video of how the painting was made, visit bobvonelgg.com.