MacArthur Boulevard near 108th Avenue in Oakland looks like many depressed urban neighborhoods. Everything is gray and rundown. There are vacant, abandoned storefronts. The street is often littered with liquor bottles, condoms and sometimes even bullet casings. Building upon building is scarred with graffiti.
Yet in the midst of so much desolation, there is an object of beauty that stops people in their tracks because it is in such stark contrast to its surroundings.
It is a colorful mural of a giant California quail painted on the side of a building that houses the HAART methadone clinic near Foothill Square. Little children walk up to it in amazement and rub the wall.
"The first thing you notice as you make the trip up MacArthur Boulevard is that it looks like the ghost of a city that once was," says Christany Blackwell, who lives in East Oakland. "I immediately noticed this mural and wondered who created it."
I had driven past it many times and wondered the same thing. A few days ago, I got an email from Caroline Stern, one of the artists. She told me the story of this community project.
It started with HAART counselor Carol Wild placing an ad on Craigslist. Wild was looking for an artist to paint a mural on a large blank wall alongside the building that was a frequent target for graffiti. She didn't have any money to pay for it. Stern, a graduate of the California College of Arts and Crafts, responded. (Go to Stern's website at www.decoartoakland.com.)
Stern got $14,500 from the city's former Redevelopment Agency which used to dedicate a tiny percentage of funding to public arts projects before it was dissolved last year. She teamed up with longtime Bay Area mural painter Dan Fontes (go to his website at www.danfontes.com) whose many public paintings of large animals include the iconic giraffes under Interstate 580 at the Harrison Avenue exit -- 30 years old this year. Stern and Fontes had also teamed up on the 20-foot-tall green sea turtle paintings alongside Interstate 880 in the Fruitvale district. Artists James Swinson and Steven Burright were also on the California quail mural team.
Stern chose a quail for her subject because it is the state bird and she wanted to encourage people to learn about native California habitat. She got people in the community involved in the painting and area trash cleanup.
Arturo Arichiga, visual arts coordinator at Youth Uprising, helped with the design and brought teens from the youth center to help apply the finishing paint touches.
Stern sees public art as a means of bringing light and hope to neighborhoods where people are dealing with violence and despair on a regular basis. The California quail is right across from the Subway sandwich shop where there was a shooting earlier this month.
Taggers have already marred the wall right next to the mural, but interestingly, no one has defaced the image itself. Knock on wood.
Back in the early 1980s, Caltrans ran a commercial asking people to paint murals on freeways as a means of graffiti abatement. Fontes saw it and applied for a $6,000 grant to paint a giraffe under the I-580. It took him a month. He would eventually paint a total of seven. He later painted the big zebras under the I-580 near Broadway, among hundreds of murals he has painted in the Bay Area.
Fontes says it makes economic sense for the city to invest in public murals because they deter graffiti which is expensive to remove.
People were forever tagging the warehouse building in Fruitvale before he painted a giant herd of swimming sea turtles. "It stopped," Fontes said. "When you do (the) math you see how labor costs are saved for graffiti removal and how much the community doesn't have to put up with that blight." (Yet it's also true that there are graffiti "artists" who have no qualms about painting over public art that someone spent months working on.)
The city's Redevelopment Agency used to encourage artists to paint murals to help abate graffiti. Once the agency was dissolved in 2012, those funds dried up.
Mural artists like Stern are struggling to find alternate funding.
I wonder if public murals might be a good candidate for crowd-sourced funding? I'd be willing to kick in a few bucks for a beautiful public mural that lifts people's spirits whenever they pass it.