The SR-57 Orange Freeway stretches approximately 4.9 miles through the cities of Placentia, Fullerton and Brea. Soon the standard gray walls will be splashed with color and contemporary designs for locals and the thousands of others who travel the freeway system to admire. 

Beginning in spring 2023, Los Angeles sculptor Cliff Garten and Ontario mural artist Alejandro Poli Jr., also known as Man One, will be beautifying the location with their original work of sculpture, “Placentia Gateway (Chromatic Ascension),” and the mural, “The Good People Under Our Sun and Moon,” respectively. 

The sculpture will be by the on/off ramps of SR-57 at Orangethorpe Avenue and the mural on West Crowther Avenue under SR-57. Both are expected to be finished by summer 2023.

“There is an expressive potential in all our infrastructure,” Garten said. “So in other words, we just aren’t making a road or bridge for cars and people to travel on. But we’re making something that also serves our visual needs, and it creates something that the community can relate to, at its own level.” 

The large-scale public art project comes as a result of the Clean California initiative, which is a part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s California Comeback Plan — a $1.2 billion, multi-year investment led by the California Department of Transportation toward removing trash, creating thousands of jobs, and beautifying and improving public spaces in the state.

“I do feel like the murals in our town have a connection to the community,” Placentia Mayor Rhonda Shader said. “When I was running for election, the people in that neighborhood told me how much (the Atwood mural) meant to them, and that it told a story of their ancestors.”

She continued, “A lot of the murals in Placencia celebrate our heritage, the heritage of people, as well as the heritage of farming and citrus in our town.”

Adding to the city’s public art scene, the artists were instructed to create contemporary pieces to complement the design of the nearby modern infrastructure by the Orange Freeway. 

While this is Garten’s first time working with Caltrans, Man One had a run-in with them decades ago. 

Growing up in Los Angeles surrounded by graffiti art, the muralist got his start in high school as the “possibility of millions of people seeing your art” enticed him to pursue a career in graffiti art. Where New York artists would use the trains to get their name out, in L.A., local artists like Man One utilized the sides of freeways and the Caltrans walls as their canvas. 

Around the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, Man One met with Caltrans and tried to figure out a program where local artists would be able to legally beautify and paint the walls on the sides of the freeway, Man One said. 

But to get the program going, Man One needed to agree that he and all other local artists would stop graffiti in the rest of the city in exchange for their collaboration with Caltrans.

“I said, ‘Well, that’s impossible. There’s no king of graffiti, you can’t lay down the law like that —  it’s impossible. I’m only responsible for me and me as an artist.’ So it never went anywhere, unfortunately,” the muralist said. 

After all these years, Man One said, being invited to work on this specific project with Caltrans has been a “full circle” moment for him.  

Garten and Man One were selected from a pool of more than 55 qualified entries. 

The Clean California initiative has budgeted $600,000 to cover every aspect of this public art project. The budget for this project was determined by past art installation experiences with Caltrans and the expertise of Arts Orange County, the independent nonprofit arts council for O.C., according to Caltrans. 

“It’s the world we live in and how the artists can help ensure that it’s conducive to the way we want to live our lives,” said Richard Stein, president and CEO of Arts Orange County. “I think that there’s enormous beauty to be created in infrastructure works.”

Garten admits that although he wanted to do the project, he initially dreaded seeing the site because he knew it was located in a small, dead space created by infrastructure (in this case, the freeway ramps and freeway itself). He wasn’t sure what he’d be able to do in the location, he said. 

But it wasn’t long until he had something in mind. 

Garten said the sculpture was generated by the contexts and functions of the site, keeping in mind the way the freeway and ramp are used as cars will be going around off the freeway and down, and in the same line, up the exit ramp onto the freeway — like a circle. 

It was this implication of a circular motion that inspired Garten to create his sculpture as a spiral maxing out the dimensions of the site, so the piece can be seen from whichever angle cars are passing. 

While Placentia has several murals in Old Town Placentia, including the 1977 and recently restored Atwood mural by artist Manuel Hernandez-Trujillo — don’t expect the same style. 

Walking through the underpass of SR-57, Man One said the first thing that came to him was the feeling that this was a place of shelter with its roof and enclosed walls. 

“Throughout the ages, we have evolved; we’ve lived in places like this right underneath cliffs and caves and whatever, just as a simple way of protecting us from the elements. And so that’s where my idea started.”

From there, Man One incorporated the universal themes of the sun and the moon, researching the relationship and motifs they have in different cultures. But taking into consideration the slanted walls and being able to view the mural from different angles, the artist came up with the idea of using geometric shapes as the background and keeping the figures in a primal, futuristic style describing the style as cave paintings meet futuristic street art, he said. 

Typically murals are set on a perpendicular wall, but the challenge of this piece is its large scale and angles. 

But challenges aren’t something that scare Man One. 

“That’s the beauty of public art. And that’s the beauty of being an artist is that you always get a challenge; it’s never the same thing twice. And that’s how you grow. And that’s how you have fun creating stuff,” Man One said. 

Whenever working on a new piece, Man One and Garten look at the social implications of their work and how the art they want to create relates to the spaces they’re transforming. 

Man One said it’s important for everyone’s voice to be heard and will be including an augmented reality (AR) element once the mural is done for passersby to scan that will include video footage and documentation incorporating the voices of people in the community, whether they are walking by, longtime residents or are homeless and living beneath the underpass. 

“In the 30 years I’ve been practicing, I’ve never had a piece defaced. Never. Now, that may be just dumb luck. But I like to think it’s because we really take into consideration what the piece is doing, how it’s integrated into the site, who the community is that the piece serves,” Garten said. “If you build these things, like you care about them, then people will care about them.”

Kristina Garcia is a contributing writer for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kristinamgarcia6@gmail.com.


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