Public Art Project Builds Community Spirit

Pajaro’s streets are filled with children in the late afternoon. They straggle in groups to the corner market, passing balls to one another, chasing each another through the neighborhood. Besides the streets and their yards (for those lucky enough to have a yard), the children of this small town at the Northern tip of Monterey County have no place to play. Populated largely by Latino farmworkers and their families, this is one of the poorest communities in the central coast region of California. It is also one of the few communities in the area with no park — until now.

With the award of a $5 million grant from the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Pajaro Neighborhood Park is currently under construction and slated to open in January 2014. When county officials asked community members what they would like to have in their new 4.9-acre park, residents requested ball fields and playgrounds, picnic tables and barbecues, a track, and a pavilion with a stage where they could hold concerts, quinceañeras and other community celebrations. But they also asked for something that would reflect the culture and people of Pajaro: a mural.

Under the direction of the Arts Council for Monterey County, a team of artists, students and the children of Pajaro are creating a 2,400-square-foot mural with 21 8-foot-by-15-foot panels. The Arts Council led workshops throughout the summer where students from Pajaro schools painted images—bright butterflies and flowers, Day of the Dead calaveras, and star-shaped piñatas, among others—that will be incorporated into the mural.

“The idea of the people being involved in the project gives them ownership and pride,” says Nick Nichols, civil engineer with the County of Monterey. “The community is really excited.”

Internationally renowned muralist Johanna Poethig, professor of Visual and Public Art at CSU Monterey Bay (CSUMB), is coordinating a team of interns and students to design and paint the panels. The mural’s centerpiece will be designed and painted by acclaimed muralist José Ortiz and apprentices from Hijos del Sol, an artistic alliance founded by Ortiz in 1992 as an after-school program for at-risk youth in Salinas.

Art as an Outlet for Youth

In addition to his apprentice-assistants, Ortiz is recruiting youth from Pajaro to contribute to painting the centerpiece. He started by asking around for kids who are already decorating the town’s walls with graffiti.

“I’m going to try to pull as many taggers and graffiti writers as I can—people who are already doing public art—and get them involved so they can find direction,” says Ortiz. “We need to give these kids a place, so they can use their abilities. It’s been needed for a long time.”

Ortiz is sitting at a table in the Galleria, an unlikely oasis of art at the Northridge Mall in Salinas. The walls are covered with paintings by his students. Also seated at the table are three of his apprentices, who will help paint the centerpiece. Between them, pencil sketches of the template stretch across the table.

“We want to bring in the centerpiece as a welcoming to the world of Pajaro,” says Oritz, gesturing towards the templates. “It’s a community mural—it should speak their voice.”

Two figures adorn the outermost templates, a man and a woman, their shoulders merging with the surrounding mountains as if they arose from the earth. Between them, children appear to leap from their arms. At the very center of the mural is a pájaro—Spanish for bird—wings outstretched amidst beams of light. Ortiz says pájaro stands for hope, freedom and transformation.

Ortiz’ gift for helping youth find transformation through art comes from his shared background. When he immigrated to the U.S. from México at age 10, he already had a yearning to create. “There is a word in Spanish—inquietud,” he explains. “I felt like there was something I had to do. I found that outlet in art.”

He discovered painting at the age of eleven. But living in a crowded home with five immigrant families, there was no space for him to work. He carried his canvas everywhere he went. Then, he discovered walls.

“I tell these kids, ‘You are an artist. You just need to develop that skill and connect with a larger world,’” says Ortiz. “Murals do that. They’re bigger than us.”

The Making of a Mural

A little ways south, on campus at CSUMB, Poethig and her interns are already hard at work creating the first mural panels. Colorful images from the schoolchildren of Pajaro come to life on the mural, and there are even portraits of some of the actual children, holding their paintings in front of them, their dark eyes glazed with pride.

Brushes are flying in the classroom—some artists work on the mural itself, others outline the templates that will be transferred to the walls using a transparency and projector. Rather than painting on the actual park wall, the artists paint on an acrylic material called polytab that hangs from the classroom walls. Eventually, each section of the mural will be transferred to the park wall, where it will be attached permanently, like wall paper. “It acts like a skin of paint,” explains Poethig.

Growing up in an artistic neighborhood of downtown Manila in the Philippines, Poethig knows firsthand the importance of living in an environment adorned with art.

“Public art projects inform people about their diverse cultures—telling the histories of people, looking at cultural symbols, adding meaning and color and excitement to our city walls,” she says. “What art offers us is stories of who we are.”

Back in the town of Pajaro, the sun starts to set as parents return from work, children running in the streets to greet them. A family walks a dog near the riverbank above the developing park. They stop to gaze down at the park, which is secured behind a chain-linked fence while still under construction. The wall is long and white, naked in the last rays of sunlight. It gleams with possibility. Someday soon the family will be within the park, rather than gazing at it from outside. When they see the mural, they will know that it is theirs.

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