Murals have long been an effective form of expression for artists, not only because of their large canvases to work with, but because of the even larger audiences they are able to reach.
Museums in Orange County have been closed since November, and even if they do reopen soon, many people may not feel completely comfortable visiting them at the moment, given the spread of COVID-19.
This, however, doesn’t mean folks can’t enjoy what local artists have to offer. Orange County has seen what appears to be a surge in murals in recent months, and they are a great way to appreciate art in a socially distant manner.
Kobe and Gianna Bryant Tribute
After the shocking death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in a helicopter crash one year ago, Orange County artist Tyke Witnes immediately turned his grief into art, devoting 24 hours to painting a mural in Costa Mesa dedicated to Kobe, Gianna and the seven other lives lost onboard the helicopter.
With the help of some friends, Witnes was able to honor his longtime inspiration and create a vast tribute for nearby fans to visit. The mural includes father Kobe and daughter Gianna at the center, both painted with halos over their heads. In the background is the name “KOBE” in bold, a name that will never be forgotten. The artist incorporated Gianna’s nickname “Gigi” as part of the “K” in “Kobe.”
Witnes made sure to honors all victims of the crash on January 26, 2020. One side reads: In memory of John, Keri, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and Peyton Chester, Christina Mauser and pilot of the helicopter, Ara Zobayan.
Following the one-year anniversary of the crash, the mural remains a place of mourning, remembrance and honor. Burning candles and fresh flowers lined the bottom of the wall during a recent visit.
The mural is located across the street from El Toro Bravo Carniceria in Costa Mesa. It is dedicated to Kobe’s wife Vanessa and daughters Natalia and Bianka.
Also in Costa Mesa resides a mural completed last October through a collaboration between Colombian-born artist Alicia Rojas, human rights lawyer Camilo Romero and the Santa Ana Community Artist(a) Coalition. Romero is co-founder of ReGeneración Colombia, a group dedicated to healing intergenerational trauma through both storytelling and cultural projects. He has always been inspired by his grandmother, Cristina Prada, and by the way her courage and strength have been passed on to his mother, sisters and nieces. Romero wanted to showcase her strength in some way, along with the strength of other influential Latina women like Modesta Avila and Frances Muñoz, and commemorate their contributions to California in the form of a public art exhibit.
Romero reached out to muralist Rojas in mid-August, and he says Rojas was the artist who most related to the vision of uplifting women of color.
“When I saw that he wanted to highlight the women of his life, it had a very special meaning to me,” lead curator Rojas said.
Rojas suggested that the mural be a female-led project, so she reached out to other women of color in the community. Despite the hot weather in October, Rojas said she and her team of women gave it their all to be able to accomplish this for the community.
The mural consists of eight different removable panels, each with a different illustration of a powerful woman in Romero’s life, a poderosa. Under each poderosa is one word that represents her peace, such as “faith,” “union,” and “family.” The mural also includes an interactive portion for community members — a set of wings for people to stand beside, which also serves as a great photo-op.
The mural — funded by Community Engagement, an arts-supporting nonprofit based in Orange County — was unveiled on Oct. 12. Romero hopes that perhaps in the future these panels will be swapped out in order to feature other important figures.
‘Purple Unity Project’ at OCEAA
In downtown Santa Ana on Broadway Street, a new mural featuring figures of peace, justice and intellectual curiosity is having an impact on a public charter school and its surrounding community.
The “Purple Unity Project,” painted on the side of the 16-year-old Orange County Educational Arts Academy (OCEAA), features the faces of Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, Albert Einstein, Frida Kahlo, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez. Each figure is accompanied by a quote and an inspirational word in Spanish. For instance, next to Martin Luther King Jr.’s calm countenance are the words “Love will have the final word!” and “colaboración,” or “collaboration.”
The 7,500-square-foot mural is painted with blue and red on the edges, which evolve into purple in the middle. Two hands form a heart at the purple center, and the words “Unity through the bond of Peace” hover above the hands.
“Purple represents unity,” said Mike Limon, executive director of OCEAA. “The country is divided — red for the Republicans, blue for the Democratic party. But you mix those two colors and you get purple.”
The mural was created and designed by Brian Peterson, known for his “Faces of Santa Ana” project, and local Santa Ana artist Damin Lujan. Ruth Prentice of Superior Property Services and Acrylatex supported the project. She also committed $5,000 in additional support toward OCEAA.
Back in November, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held, after the artists Peterson and Lujan — along with a handful of OCEAA students — took seven days to design and paint the mural.
Dignitaries who attended the ribbon cutting included Reben Franco, CEO of the Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Julian Canete, CEO of California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce; David Penaloza, Johnathan Ryan Hernandez and Jessie Lopez from the city of Santa Ana; and representatives from U.S. Rep. Lou Correa’s (D-Santa Ana) office, Assemblymember Tom Daly’s (D-Anaheim) office and State Sen. Tom Umburg’s (D-Santa Ana) office.
Two months after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the mural seems to have had a significant impact on the school and the broader community.
“It’s a visual hug — that’s something that two of our parents have told me,” Limon said. “With all of the politics and racial challenges we’ve experienced recently, to be able to have this installation come to life is amazing.
“We were working to construct a mural for the school, but it’s bigger than the school. It’s gotten a lot visibility from the community. It’s not just the school’s mural, it’s the community’s mural. Overall, the community has been very grateful.”
Recently, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, OCEAA students held an onsite event in front of the slain civil rights leader’s visage.
“We had a writing competition,” Limon said. “The students were asked to write something — what’s our dream for our community and families. A bunch of people joined us on Zoom. It’s kind of cool, because the visual represents a lot of people.”
OCEAA is a nonprofit, public charter school that serves about 630 TK through 8th grade students. Tuition is free, and funding comes directly from the state and from private donations.
Lead artist Peterson gained regional recognition in 2005 with his “Faces of Santa Ana” project, in which he donated proceeds from portraits of homeless people back to his subjects.
Peterson has produced a slew of new projects in Orange County, decorating homeless shelters, soup kitchens and affordable housing developments. You can check out his murals and recent work on his Faces of Santa Ana website.
Los Niños del Mundo
A worldly mural most recently touched up in 2019 can be seen near the entrance of Lemon Park in Fullerton. The “Niños del Mundo” mural was originally completed on January 26, 1994 by the late Emigdio Vasquez Sr., alongside his son Higgy Vasquez. It was also the first mural produced by the formerly named CUFFS (Citizens United for Fullerton Safety), now known as Project Safe, a collaboration between several community based organizations motivated to steering the youth away from drug and gang involvement.
After two decades, the once colorful mural began to fade. In 2019, Higgy Vasquez received the funding necessary to restore his father’s mural. The restoration was completed on Sept. 21 of that same year.
“Los Niños del Mundo” features images of 13 children from various regions around the world. It has inspired those who pass by it on Lemon Street for over 25 years. The mural displays a plethora of different cultures, which makes it capable of being relatable for people of various backgrounds and walks of life.
In the center of the mural is an enormous image of the planet Earth, showing that no matter where we come from, we all live on the same planet and we have to learn to coexist. Similar to “Las Poderosas,” passersby are able to see themselves in these children and may even get inspired to share their own story.
Crystal Henriquez is an intern for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at email@example.com.