Introduction: The Miracle of the California Mural Towns
California has always been in the cultural avant-garde. The state's major metropolitan areas, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and San Diego, are hotbeds of mural creativity. Diverse cultural, political, economic, and sometimes purely artistic influences have helped create and nurture cutting-edge murals of all styles and persuasions.
Over the past two or three decades, the growth of murals in small-town California has been especially phenomenal. There are a few essential reasons for the strong appeal of public murals in small towns. Lacking big-city sensory overload, small towns have fewer elements that compete for aesthetic attention, and a large-scale mural becomes a focal point of the community. The keen interest in murals has also been bred by the necessity of survival. Small towns are hubs of economic activity, but in some cases, the main sources of economic wealth have diminished drastically. A primary cause is often the failure of a core industry. Logging operations cease, mines peter out, or key industries relocate. In response, some towns have created mural programs as a means of attracting visitors and revitalizing the economy through tourism.
An added bonus is a reinvigoration of civic pride. Many murals offer wonderful lessons about a town's past. Each town has a unique history, with heroes (and, for honesty's sake, a few villains), triumphs, and tragedies. What better way to share, and to learn about, small-town life than through the visual history lessons on the walls.
Whatever the reasons a small community initiates a mural program, the community finds that the rewards are numerous and more far-reaching than merely beautification or tourism. Muralist Don Gray comments on this aspect:
Many of the mural projects that spring up all over are in small towns that find themselves faced with lethargic economies. A mural program is proposed as a way to bring visitors (and their money) to town. A core group of energetic folks gets the ball rolling. Then an interesting thing happens. Friendships flourish as activists rub shoulders to choose mural themes, meet artists, hold fundraisers, prepare walls for painting, and attend to the countless details that arise. The enthusiasm is contagious. More and more volunteers jump in. Suddenly, all this shared energy blossoms into a renewed sense of community pride that can't be measured simply in economic terms. They are revitalized in spirit as well.*
Many observers consider the small town of Chemainus in British Columbia, Canada, to be the birthplace of what is called the mural town and Dr. Karl Schutz to be the chief architect. The Chemainus mural program began in 1982, and now this historic lumber-mill town boasts more than thirty large-scale murals. As a measure of the economic potential of a mural program, this town of three thousand residents attracts more than four hundred thousand visitors each year. Schutz's credo is "Never let those who say it can't be done stand in the way of those who are doing it." Acting as a consultant to small-town mural programs, he has been instrumental in spreading the concept of the mural town, especially to receptive places in California.
California has its own strong mural tradition that began in the 1920s and '30s. It was spearheaded by los Tres Grandes (the Three Greats): Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their influence led to flourishing mural programs in large California cities, especially those with a sizable Hispanic population. They were closely followed by the Great Depression–era WPA murals in public buildings, and the tradition flourished through the social-action murals of the 1960s and '70s to a wide variety of mural projects being carried out today.
This is especially true in the small mural towns of California, where there has been an explosion of mural projects in the last ten years. Mural towns grow in many ways. Some small-town mural projects are the efforts of eager and prolific local mural artists. Although they become the core contributors, a project may expand by inviting out-of-town muralists to participate. Some mural towns begin as the work of a dedicated and inspired mural society, which raises money and commissions murals. However the mural program begins, it invariably incites community involvement and pride. One event designed to include the community in a hands-on manner is called mural-in-a-day. A master muralist is selected and given a theme, then researches the subject matter, designs a mural, creates a sketch on a prepared wall, and mixes the paint. Early on the appointed day, volunteers execute the mural in a paint-by-numbers fashion. At the end of the day, sometimes after sundown, the scaffolds are dismantled, the mural is signed by the participating painters, and the dedication is made. Photos are taken, T-shirts and certificates are handed out, and everyone celebrates a job well done. This collaborative process not only reduces the cost of the mural through the use of volunteer efforts, but also fosters enthusiasm for the mural project within the community. Trompe l'oeil muralist John Pugh has firm ideas on the effect of public murals on small-town communities:
Murals help to create a sense of community pride and enthusiasm. Murals also help to establish a community identity. They unite people . . . bring people together. Public art can provide a sense of common history, common culture, and heritage. People underestimate the power of public art. It is an art that people can participate in and interact with.*
The growth of small-town mural projects is not limited to California. An increasing number of towns in the United States and Canada have embraced the mural town concept, and flourishing mural towns are found around the world, from Prestongrange, Scotland, to Sterling, Tasmania.
As this book defines a mural town, it is a place where the town intends the murals be all, or part, of a plan to attract tourism. Therefore, the murals are an economic drawing card as well as an aesthetic novelty. Several "mural towns" have only one or two murals. These are budding mural towns in the first stages of their growth. They have mural societies in place and are planning to build mural collections as an integral part of their tourism appeal. They may not merit a special trip but are certainly worth a look if you happen to be nearby.
In selecting murals for the book, I have chosen murals by both amateur and professional artists and works offering a wide range of artistic appeal, from skillful narratives to expressions of pure whimsy. Masterworks of the genre include the trompe l'oeil narrative illusions of John Pugh, the larger-than-life epics of Wei Luan, the expressive portraits of Don Gray, and the dramatic historic tableaus of Art Mortimer. Countless murals by other artists add local flavor, unique perspectives, and individual styles. The captions are meant to give not only information about the mural, artist, and location but also a sense of the significance of each mural--what it contributes to the town and what makes it special. The standard medium for outdoor murals is acrylic paint, as it is the most durable and weatherproof medium. It is also less expensive and quicker to dry than oil-based paints. By their very nature, murals, placed on the sides of buildings, are generally large, some over one hundred feet in length. Whatever the medium, size, and inspiration, one thing is certain: these muralists have truly taken the museum to the streets.
Your Guide to Artful Adventure
The mural towns of California offer a treasure trove of history and art. If you find art and history both enlightening and entertaining, this combination travel guide, art reference, and history book is the perfect resource--whether you make a weekend tour to several mural towns or visit just one mural town en route from one place to another.
Descriptions of each town and its attractions will help you plan your trip, but be sure to contact the local chamber of commerce (using the addresses, phone numbers, and websites provided) for current maps, calendars of events, restaurant and accommodation listings, and other information. The chambers can also provide you with additional background on the artists. Individual muralists' websites are another good source of information.
This book encourages travel at a slower pace. Mural towns are places where you can take your time and recharge your batteries. You will meet new people and enjoy leisurely small-town life out of the fast lane, and you will find much to learn.
Excerpted from Large Art in Small Places by Kevin Bruce. Copyright © 2009 by Kevin Bruce. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.