‘I used to get arrested for that kind of stuff’: Why Wide Open Walls muralists paint our city

This year, the Wide Open Walls mural festival produced 34 works by 48 original artists — each with a unique take on why Sacramento was in urgent need of a new coat of paint.

The festival grew out of the inaugural Sacramento Mural Festival of 2016 with 27 participants raising money for local art schools, and has since welcomed more than 150 artists.

Many of the muralists came to town from other states and nations in August to try their hand on some of Sacramento’s blandest walls. Some say they did it to celebrate the underestimated artistic genre of public spray paint. Others aimed to support people who’ve been cast aside by society. Still others sought to pay tribute to the city, its history and heritage.

Here’s a look at the images these artists left behind, and their thoughts on how and why they helped transform the local landscape.

‘I used to get arrested for that kind of stuff when I was a kid’

Robert Bowen & Stephanie Taylor

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Caroline Ghisolfi

Now a painter with an international fan base, who found success producing original surrealist prints for 20 years, Robert Bowen of San Francisco started his fine arts career as an outlaw graffiti artist.

“It’s funny how (spray-painted art) … has come full circle,” Bowen said in an interview with The Bee. “It’s an accepted art form now. When I was a kid it wasn’t.”

For his first contribution to Wide Open Walls, Bowen spray painted the right-hand wall of the local art Archival Gallery at 3223 Folsom Blvd. in East Sacramento.

Robert Bowen Mural :: Robert Bowen.jpeg
Now a painter with an international fan-base, whose profited off original surrealist prints for twenty years, Robert Bowen, from San Francisco, started his fine arts career as an outlaw graffiti artist. Carrie Cottini

He said many passers-by approached him to ask how to decipher his cryptic mural, depicting a 10-by-30-feet wasp with a detonating old-school aircraft “wasp” engine for a head.

“It’s a nod to the conservation and protection of Mother Nature,” Bowen said. “It’s going to break down.”

But Bowen said the medium he used to create the wasp attracted most of the attention, blowing clouds of color as he layered the wall with paint. He said some locals were pleased to see spray paint gain a new dignity in the art world.

“I used to get arrested for that kind of stuff when I was a kid,” a man walking by told Bowen, who laughed as he answered: “So did I.”

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Caroline Ghisolfi

The works of Bowen and the many spray-paint artists in this year’s lineup are transforming the local art landscape, even inspiring classical artists to try out the modern “technology” of spray.

Freelance journalist and returning muralist Stephanie Taylor was skeptical when Wide Open Walls made its debut. But Taylor said she became drawn to the festival as more and more minimalist and graffiti artists joined.

“I thought (a mural festival) was nothing new, it’s been happening since the ‘80s in many many counties,” Taylor said. “But the second year really started to change my mind. Now the graffiti artists (and) artists making decorative work … want to be involved.”

Stephanie Taylor Mural :: Caroline Ghisolfi.JPG
Caroline Ghisolfi

Taylor said she had to cave and give in to the new medium to re-create the flow of dance in her 2019 tribute to Sacramento Ballet husband-wife directing duo Carinne Binda and Ron Cunningham — on the back wall of a gym where their dancers still practice, the Capital Athletic Club at 1515 Eighth Street in downtown Sacramento.

‘When the Gold Rush came in, a lot of the tribe was wiped out’

Carl Avery

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Caroline Ghisolfi

The Miwok settled in the Americas tens of thousands of years ago. During the Gold Rush, the tribe was almost entirely forced off its lands — which stretched from the Sierra Nevada through Sacramento Valley to the Delta.

But the tribe is still robust and flourishing, and artist Carl Avery came to Sacramento to paint a statement that will send this message loud and clear.

Avery was born and raised in the Yurok tribe on a reservation in Hoopa, an unincorporated community of Humboldt County. He said the project felt organic to him. He said he understands the struggles of Native Americans, and described the poverty, the desolation, the substance abuse on the reservation he knew.

“Most Native American communities deal with alcohol abuse, drug abuse,” Avery said. “I myself have dealt with it pretty much my whole upbringing … not myself personally, but just others around me.”

But Avery said his project – a 300-foot tribute to the Miwok tribe, which he said faces many similar challenges – is meant to portray those facets of culture and tradition that have helped the tribe survive rather than perish.

Carl Avery Mural :: Carl Avery
A people that settled in the Americas tens of thousands of years ago, during the gold rush the Miwok tribe was almost entirely forced off its lands. But the tribe is still robust and flourishing, and artist Carl Avery came to Sacramento to paint it loud and clear. Carl Avery

“We wanted to link some of the protecting factors against drugs, alcohol, suicide, and give a positive spin on the Miwok tribe,” he said. “It was nice to see that this other tribe was trying to promote art as a healthy outlet for youth and adults to cope with stress and life-altering events.”

Avery said the project was a collaborative endeavor.

After researching the Miwok tribe’s customs, the artist spent three weeks with member Mike Larrabee to ensure the design was not just accurate, but representative of both the tribe’s cultural background and its integration into modern-day society.

Laying the groundwork – rolling the base coat, and even tracing projected sketches onto the wide stretch – was the youth program of the Sacramento Native American Health Center at 2020 J St. in midtown, where the mural is now displayed.

“When the Gold Rush came in, a lot of tribe was wiped out or pushed outside their land,” Avery said, “but this youth worked to (prove) that they’re still here and still thriving today.”

‘And a woman’s painting it?’

Charmaine Olivia & Melida Arendt

Charmaine Olivia Mural
Caroline Ghisolfi

Returning festival artist Charmaine Olivia, from Rainbow, San Diego County, is pursuing a “goddess” spree and painted her second female heroine-deity on the front entrance of California Family Fitness at 1012 K St. in downtown Sacramento.

Olivia said the “Goddess of Wellness,” a 15-foot-tall profile of a woman swirled in feathery dashes of magenta and neon blue, is meant to welcome people into the gym, just as its 2018 twin mural in Downtown Commons – the ‘Goddess of Sacramento’ – salutes tourists visiting the city.

As she painted, the artist said that her small frame stood in stark contrast to the monumental scale of the mural, fueling both prejudice and admiration.

“I just turned 31, but I’m small … so people often don’t take me seriously,” Olivia said. “I’ve learned to (brush it off): This is who I am, this is what I do.”

Olivia said too many passers-by asked if she’d actually painted the mural all by herself.

However, many were inspired by the mural’s grandiosity too, Olivia said. She cherished a final remark by a group of girls passing by the gym. “That’s a beautiful mural,” she remembered one of them saying, then gladly adding: “And a woman’s painting it?”

Melinda Arendt Mural
Caroline Ghisolfi

More and more female artists are becoming involved with Wide Open Walls, said first-time muralist and graphic designer Melinda Arendt, from Sacramento, who completed the “‘I’ in the ‘CALIFORNIA’” sign on the back wall of the city’s Automobile Museum.

The mural was created by 11 local artists, echoing the “Sacramento” mural made last year at Sacramento State.

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Melinda Arendt

Arendt also used her window of opportunity to publicly display the strength and power of California women, combining imagery from ancient mythology with the minimal lines of a digital illustrator.

‘I was inspired by the literary depictions of California as a bountiful, terrestrial paradise ruled by amazonian women,” she said, “ … and my two sisters, who are the strongest ladies I know.”

Arendt said she was astonished at the many artists who worked tirelessly under Sacramento’s burning sun to honor the larger-than-life women – and men – of Sacramento and beyond.

‘Museums feel elitist’

Kristin Farr & KiriLeigh Jones

Kristin Farr Mural
Caroline Ghisolfi

While Wide Open Walls has become a well-known tourist attraction, muralist and museum curator Kristin Farr — creator of the 3D-illusion folk patterns in the “CALIFORNIA” sign – says locals benefit most from the festival.

“Sure, it brings in a lot of tourism, but also a lot of community participation in public art,” Farr said. “Galleries and museums feel elitist to everyday people, (while) the festival brings accessible art to the community where they can enjoy it without knowing too much about it.”

From Richmond, Contra Costa County, Farr is a WOW alum: She was one of the 27 original Sacramento festival artists of 2016, and has participated twice. Between the festival and her personal artistic endeavors, Farr said she’s produced over a dozen large-scale murals in the city.

“Some (people) will only see my mural from the car window as they pass by… and that’s OK,” she said. “As an artist, you’re really just trying to draw people in and capture their attention, give them a moment to appreciate something handmade.”

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Caroline Ghisolfi

Working with similarly abstract shapes, artist KiriLeigh Jones, from Alameda, says the festival gives people a chance to absorb the creative energy of art, and feel emotional for one more moment a day.

Jones invested a week in her layered, six-story-high Buddhist-inspired Mandalan flower behind the SEIU Local 1000 union building in Richmond Grove. But she said she hopes viewers will just spare a moment to take it in.

‘Little pieces of the city’s natural world’

Molly Devlin

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Caroline Ghisolfi

Much of Sacramento’s “eye candy” is neglected, says returning artist Molly Devlin.

Devlin specializes in breathing life into the strange, the gross, the unimaginable. Her 2019 nautical mutation, an imposing plum monolith birthing a storm of radiating semi-transparent lightning bugs, grew out of the patches of green along the city’s sidewalks, the shrubs behind its benches, the leaves that brush its asphalt.

“Break out of repetition and you’ll find yourself constantly creating,” Devlin said. “Walking around Sacramento, I’ll bend down and there’s so much plant life flourishing, layers of weird and gross … more than just one dimension.”

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Molly Devlin

Located on the side wall of the Sushi and Sake restaurant at 1601 Del Paso Blvd., Devlin’s mural took 10 days to complete. The artist said the composition is fictional, but germinated in the neighborhoods of Old North Sacramento.

“I try to drag little pieces of the city’s natural world into my paintings,” she said. “I try to portray major complexity by giving it layers, manipulating it … to present a sense of possibility.”

‘I am black, white and Mexican’

Aizik ‘Aik’ Brown

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Caroline Ghisolfi

Emerging artist Aizik “Aik” Brown, from Sacramento, said becoming a 2019 Wide Open Walls artist represented much-needed validation for himself and for his community.

Brown’s application was denied twice in 2017 and 2018. But he got his foot into the door after reapplying to the festival last year, and was selected again this year to participate in the “CALIFORNIA” mural.

Caroline Ghisolfi

“It means a lot to my family and my community, my little cousins, the kids in school I talk to … I want to make sure that I represent them,” Brown said. “I’m black, white and Mexican … . It was hard for me coming up as an artist in Sacramento.”

Brown was often pushed aside in the art community, he said. His friends and family discouraged him from pursuing the arts, and since he was a little boy told him to “chase the money, go to school, get a business degree or be a lawyer.”

In his 2018 mural, Brown said, he paid respect to his Mexican and black roots, and to the city’s victims of gun violence. His latest work honors Sacramento, the “sacred land” that made him.

“People make the land and the land makes the people,” he said. “It’s a tribute to California, and also a tribute to myself and to my ancestors who came to this land, and have been on it for many many years.”

‘Humans are humans’

Mabel Vincentef & Cecelia Perez

Mabel Vincentef Mural
Caroline Ghisolfi

The Central Valley’s natural scenery also made an impression on Argentinian artist Mabel Vincentef, from Buenos Aires, whose surrealistic profile of a black woman – eyes squeezed shut, shoulders bare – is populated by an alpine landscape.

But contrary to Brown, Vincentef’s main subject takes inspiration from what she perceived to be lacking in Sacramento: representation of black women.

The artist said she hasn’t encountered many people of color in Argentina, and had never painted a figure with darker skin.

But stepping into Sacramento and witnessing men and women of all colors, Vincentef said she was surprised to see so few public artworks displaying the city’s diversity.

“The organizer told me very few artists painted people (of color),” Vincentef said. “In Sacramento, I could just feel a lot of discrimination.”

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Karin du Maire

While the subject — now permanently pictured at the corner of 12th and E streets in Mansion Flats – is not based on a local, Vincentef said the many men and women she met during her stay in Sacramento informed her work.

“I don’t talk much about this, I don’t feel that I have the right to. But there were a lot of homeless people (passing by), some were black, some Mexican, and I noticed there’s a lot of feelings of rejection among them,” Vincentef said. “I think humans are humans, and we should respect other cultures and other ways of living.”

Cecelia Perez Mural
Caroline Ghisolfi

Much like black women, it’s rare to see Chicano women publicly and proudly displayed on Sacramento’s walls, said artist Cecelia Perez.

“It’s Dora the Explorer, a drug dealer, or some sort of criminal,” Perez said. “The Mexican American subject matter on walls – like in books and in the media – just didn’t really represent me … somebody of Latin descent that is more educated, powerful, strong.”

Perez painted the first letter of the “CALIFORNIA” mural as a testimony to the contributions of Mexican Americans to the city and the state.

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Cecelia Perez

The mural honors farm workers that drive the agricultural industry and show women that thrive in the entertainment business. And she made it a priority to include a piece of herself, a ‘54 Chevrolet Bel Air that nostalgically pays tribute to the community of Mexican American lowriders in the Sacramento Valley.

“I need to take the reins,” Perez said. “I have (a) platform to make them feel proud of their culture and proud of themselves.”