The public muralist occupies a distinct place in the visual arts. Other painters can concern themselves primarily with what goes on the canvas. Their work is valued as a thing unto itself, the walls of museums and galleries designed to be their showcase.
The muralist, by contrast, has to adhere to the dictates of the painter—what do I want to express, and why?—while also contending with a dizzying variety of other factors, including weather, permits, municipal bureaucracy, property owners, potential vandals and, probably most importantly of all, developing a broad consensus on what the painting is all about.
It’s a wonder anyone even attempts it.
But on Dec. 21, muralists from all over California will converge in Watsonville in what is being billed as a first-ever summit of sorts, called “California Mural Artists in the Heart of the Valley.” It will be an opportunity for muralists from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to come together, talk shop, swap tips and stories, and commiserate about working in the most public form of visual art.
“It’s really an informal conversation between people who have never met each other before,” says event co-coordinator Sophia Santiago, herself a muralist who spearheaded the 2016 “Food Love” mural project at the downtown Santa Cruz farmer’s market.
“It’s not really a panel,” says Santiago, who will host the event with her partner in the project, Watsonville artist and teacher Kathleen Crocetti. “It’s not that formal.”
The event—taking place Saturday afternoon from 1 to 4 p.m. at El Alteño Social Club in downtown Watsonville—is open to the public. In fact, it serves as a good opportunity to get a feel for working muralists in California and their artistic themes and obsessions. Around 15 muralists are expected to come to the event, where they will each get the opportunity to talk about their work and show slides of their murals.
Muralists from around the state have been invited, but the highest concentration of participants is expected to come from the rich muralist communities of Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Salinas.
Representing the latter will be master muralist José Ortiz, who in a 25-year career has painted around 70 full-scale murals in Salinas and greater Monterey County. Ortiz is excited for the opportunity to network with other muralists.
“I haven’t done much work outside Salinas or Monterey County,” he says, “so I’ve never really had the opportunity to meet others like me. I’ve met other (muralists), but not to the extent of coming together to have a chat about the work, or technique.”
Given that their work is necessarily seen by the public in non-artistic settings, Ortiz says muralists are more bound to community standards than the individual painter hanging in a gallery. “One of the things that I think about in my work is, ‘How can I bring people together?’” ,” he says. “What are the symbols that they are all looking for, that we can all relate to, or that might help people better understand each other?”
Ortiz has a deep understanding of what the public in Salinas wants by virtue of the nonprofit Hijos del Sol, where he works as the director. Hijos is a kind of public arts facility, providing art instruction, studio space and tools for young people in underserved communities.
“It’s an experimental studio space,” he says. “If you’re a runner, you can run anywhere. If you play soccer, there are soccer fields. But if you’re an artist or illustrator, it’s difficult to find a spot where you can do what you want to do.”
Another muralist who’ll be at the Dec. 21 event is Irene Juarez O’Connell, who led the effort in the ambitious Beach Flats mural project, a 190-foot mural in Santa Cruz’s Beach Flats Park.
O’Connell says that she hopes to come away with a sense of fellowship with other mural artists. “I hope it’ll be a moment that muralists are celebrated and listened to, not just as visual artists, but as cultural workers and content creators. I’m fairly young in my career, so I’m looking forward to connecting with people who have been doing this a lot longer than I have.”
Among the topics expected to be covered are the often complicated permit process, the challenges of working with a team of painters, and developing community support.
“I’m looking for inspiration,” says O’Connell, “on how to build a long life and career doing this, and how to find new ways to navigate a lot of the ins and outs of bureaucracy and all things that muralists have to encounter.”
The event is co-sponsored by the new Watsonville nonprofit Community Arts & Empowerment, under the direction of Kathleen Crocetti, who will be spearheading a big public art project in Watsonville in the next decade.