Friday, January 13, 2012
Some of the original artists who painted the Chicano Park murals in the 1970s are painting there once again as part of an unprecedented renovation project to preserve the murals.
Felipe Adame reaches above his head to dab sky blue paint on the ceiling of a bandstand in Chicano Park. He's working on a mural he first painted in the 1970s. "The only deterioration that happened in here is the ceiling cracked, because the moisture was collecting up on the roof," says Adame. He brushes over a few cracks in the bandstand mural, which depicts the mythological founding of Mexico and features a large serpent.
Adame is one of the original Chicano Park muralists, meaning he was among a group of artists in the 1970s who looked at the pylons under the Coronado bridge on-ramp and saw canvasses instead of concrete.
This time, Adame is painting from a wheelchair. "I’ve committed it into a positive aspect. I can wheel myself around much easier than if I was standing up. I can raise the handle here so I can rest my arm on the ledge and paint." He reaches down to gather more paint from a tray resting on the raised scaffolding. He rises and adds "I can still see and I can still paint. Thank god for that."
Chicano Park, in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood, is a museum in the unlikeliest of places, under a web of highway overpasses. The park's 72 murals have been exposed to the elements for 40 years, and many of them show it. Thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the federal government (and administered by CALTRANS), 18 of the murals are getting a much needed facelift.
Mario Torero, one of the original muralists, says the restoration is necessary. "It is our history. It's something that doesn’t just belong to the Barrio, it belongs to all San Diego, to the world of art, to American art, because this is very much an American art phenomenon, you know?"
The murals capture the spirit of protest central to Chicano Park's history. The area was once "occupied" for 12 days in 1970 as Barrio Logan residents insisted a park be built as promised. Through the murals, artists have depicted the political and social struggles of Mexican-Americans, as well as celebrated their history and culture.
Artist Victor Ochoa stands in front of three stories of scaffolding, which allow him to reach the top of one of his murals, titled "All The Way to the Bay." The scaffolding is decorated with flags and a papier-mâché Day of the Dead altar.
"This time that we have a budget is like the first time that I’ve been able to buy pigments, colors that, in my whole life as a mural painter, I’d never been able to afford."
Ricardo Duffy is overseeing the mural restoration project. He says when the murals were first painted, the artists made do with whatever supplies they could get. "At the time, artists really didn’t have money to buy paint so their resources were from car dealerships, and thrown out discarded paints, anything they could get their hands on. It wasn’t a paid mural, it was a movement by the community."
Looking around the park, the newly restored murals pop with fresh color. But inferior paint isn’t the only reason these historic murals have faded, according to Duffy. "We've seen a lot of water damage. And plus the cement expands and contracts throughout the year. There’s fog, there’s marine air, there's fallout from the traffic and soot. There’s hydrocarbons that are hitting them all the time."
Sections of some murals have even been removed by CALTRANS due to lead in the paint. Because of the restoration, those will now be filled in.
Torero says the artists are enjoying being back in the park together. "It’s kind of this reunion. Not only are we refurbishing the walls, we’re refurbishing our own spirits, because we were so together back then. We’ve gone in different directions and now we're coming back and we've grown up and really understand life a little better."
Ochoa says he's enjoying the response from the people who walk in the park every day. "They’ll walk by and then they just sit there. They don’t say nothing, but they have this really beautiful smiling face. Man, it really feels spiritual in a way, people just sitting there with their smiling faces.”
The restoration is expected to be completed in July of 2012.
Tune in to KPBS TV's Evening Edition tonight at 6:30pm to see more of the Chicano Park mural restoration project. Video and audio from Chicano Park will be posted here by 12noon.