People in the Central Valley have painted murals for decades. They’ve represented civil rights and worker equality as well advertisements for companies. But FM89’s Ezra David Romero found that many murals painted today in places like Fresno have taken on a very different tone than murals painted just a few decades ago.
In the 1960s John Sierra started painting murals in the Fresno area.
His paintings had a strong political bent and many were mobile because of the lack of available walls.
“It was hard,” Sierra says. “You couldn’t hardly get anything up unless it was an old building that was abandoned or something. They were mostly about some of the Mexican imagery and some of the farmworker issues.”
One of his murals is on a state building in downtown Fresno. It’s five stories high and has three panels. Sierra painted it in the 70s and it’s called “The Planting of Cultures.” We’re at his studio where he’s showing me the original sketch.
“It shows different groups of people and these people are all representative of different cultures,” Sierra says.
The mural is starting fade and Sierra says he hopes to restore it soon.
“I pretty much used the grape vine as something as an outline,”he says. “So it’s all about growing together and sharing.”
He’s taught a whole slew of young artists in the region when he was a professor at Fresno City College. Sierra says he’s witnessed a change in the type of murals that are painted here. He says the messages the murals portray are harder to make out, perhaps because artists today aren't unified around a single cause.
“We were actually a group of people and so we had the same message.” Sierra says. “It’s not that bad, I just can’t see myself doing something similar to what they’re doing today. I still have things I want to say that are important to me anyway.”
Even still he says the fact that murals are being painted today is a win for the region. He’s talking largely about outdoor art in Fresno’s Mural District. Lots of the murals there are on private property and he says they’re sort of decorative. Many were funded by developers who’ve built loft style homes there.
But murals in the region aren’t just limited to this one district. I spoke with two women who are documenting the areas mural for a website and a new book. They found about 200 murals in Fresno County alone
“We have a lot of pretty lady murals in Fresno,” say Teresa Flores. “A lot of people's significant others, guys’ girlfriends are painted on the side of buildings.”
Flores helped spearhead a project documenting murals in Fresno County called the Digital Mural Map. They’re compiling those images into a book all about murals that’ll come out this spring. It’s a collaboration between Creative Fresno, Fresno State, Fresno Regional Foundation and others. For them it’s an opportunity to document the region's rich art history before it disappears.
“Muralism is an act of reclamation to say that this is where we’re from, this is who we are, let us represent who we are and not let other people represent who we are,” says Flores' colleague Carissa Garcia.
Murals aren’t always widely accepted by the public. About six years ago Teresa Flores helped paint a large mural in Fresno’s Tower District with a focus on current issues like policing.
“I had painted a cop on a motorcycle holding a radar gun,” Flores says. “The neighbors didn’t like that he was holding any kind of gun and so I changed it to a banana, because bananas are harmless.”
Flores says she hasn’t found many recent murals with strong messages like this in Fresno.
University of Southern California Spanish Professor Consuelo Siguenza-Ortiz says she’s surprised that messages of activism in murals aren’t as prevalent today in Fresno. She say they are in Los Angeles.
“They have a current political message and even the murals that were done in the 80s and 90s they’re still very current in terms of issues of women's right, minority rights, community rights,” says Siguenza-Ortiz.
Ortiz says the messages murals give off are dependent on both the artists and who’s commissioned them. UC Irvine Art Professor Mara Lonner says it’s alright that murals today aren’t always political or have a deeper meaning. She says the current political climate is a factor.
“There’s so many different issues that we’re negotiating that it’s not quite as concentrated as say the farmworkers rights from the period in Fresno when Cesar Chavez was so active and important,” Lonner says.
In Downtown Fresno a new three story tall mural is in the process of being painted on the old Fresno Bee building.
“Each individual artist has a certain way of approaching a wall and it’s like dancing cumbia or something,” says Carrera. “Like what kind of step do you do? It’s just the same beat.”
Francisco Letelier is the visiting muralist from Southern California. He says this mural will honor the Valley’s writers and poets.
“It’s one huge iconic figure of a young man walking along, reading a book,” Letelier says. “The pages of the book are kind of lifting off going past him and they're becoming birds.”
When the mural is finished in a month or two it’ll be added to the Digital Mural Map. Anyone who finds a new mural in Fresno County or who has information about a mural can add it to the map.