Search the Archive:

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 26, 2002

Off the wall Off the wall (July 26, 2002)

East Palo Alto Mural Project teaches kids about art, history and community

by Robyn Israel

S canning the 6-by-24-foot mural, your eyes are immediately drawn to the young African-American woman who is sitting cross-legged in the center of the piece. To her right lies the city of East Palo Alto, with its new homes populating the landscape. To represent its three primary populations -- Latino, African American and Pacific Asian-Islander, three fists are raised defiantly, each with distinct cultural markings.

To the woman's left is Silicon Valley, symbolized by the inner circuitry of a computer circuit board. Below it are dollar signs, a wrecking ball and the phrase, "We Buy Homes" -- a reminder of the signs that were prominently displayed in East Palo Alto prior to its recent new development.

Straddling the two communities, the East Palo Alto woman is in the middle of both worlds, all the while growing roots -- pictorially -- in San Francisquito Creek. Eyes closed, she seems deep in thought, reflecting on her city's past and future, contemplating what she's going to do with the rest of her life.

"It was intended to depict what's going on in the community with the new developments, (to) talk about the digital divide," said Omar Ramirez, the artist who supervised the mural's construction. "Even though they're in the hub of tech central, technology isn't necessarily knocking on everyone's door here."

Entitled "Reflection Eternal" (named after an album by musician Talib Kwali), the portable piece now hangs in a recreation room at the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula in East Palo Alto. Created last summer by a half dozen teenagers, it was the first creation of the East Palo Alto Mural Art Project, a program dedicated to employing local teens as assistants to Ramirez. Its goal is to create a mural for all of the schools in the Ravenswood City School District over the next five years, and at the same time educate its young artists about the community's colorful history and its diverse residents. Established in March 2001, the program is run in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula and the Ravenswood School District. It is the brainchild of Ramirez and project director Sonya Clark-Herrera, who first met when they were students at UC Irvine. Both are assisted by Vanessa Fleming, the art director at the Boys and Girls Club, and Rachel McIntire, an art teacher at the club.

"The fact is, here you have a community that doesn't have any public art. (And we felt) the story of East Palo Alto would be told best by public art," Ramirez said.

The group's current project is a mural that will be installed at the East Palo Alto Charter School, right near the Baylands. Its location is key, as its theme will focus on conservation and the area's indigenous peoples, specifically the Ohlone-Costanoan Indians. To research the project, Clark-Herrera and Ramirez have taken the kids on a tour of the wetlands, led by conservationist and former Palo Alto City Councilwoman Emily Renzel.

"Approximately 90 percent of the wetlands in the San Francisco Bay Area have been decimated due to development, according to Renzel," Clark-Herrera said. "So preservation of this last 10 percent is extremely important. We -- meaning the youth -- have an opportunity to make a statement with this mural."

The group also met with East Palo Alto Mayor Duane Bay, who discussed his support of building an extension of the Dumbarton Bridge across the wetlands, in a way that doesn't obstruct the area.

They also recently met with Stephen DeBerry, an East Palo resident who, as a Marshall scholar, did graduate work in anthropology at Oxford University. DeBerry invited the kids to his home, where he shared with them the story of Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, who wrote "Life Among the Piutes" in the mid-1800s, one of the few historical accounts written by a Native American.

DeBerry impressed upon the group the lasting legacy they would soon be creating.

"You guys are making representations of your culture that will be there for years and years," DeBerry told the group, who reside in either East Palo Alto or Menlo Park.

Based on their exposure to various people and ideas, the 19 kids, ranging in age from 14 to 18, are then encouraged to brainstorm and develop ideas for the mural's design.

"The mural's story will portray the wetlands, with the animals as its victims, humanity as the villain, with the hero being the youth," Clark-Herrera said.

Work on the new mural is set to begin next week, and the target date for its completion is Sept. 4. All of the participants have successfully completed a three-week training seminar and have been interviewed by a panel of six individuals. The kids will be paid $9 per hour, and will earn an average of $700 total for their participation, with many children using their salary to aid their families, according to Clark-Herrera.

The project's funding, Clark-Herrera said, comes from the Peninsula Community Foundation, Community Foundation Silicon Valley, Palo Alto Endowment Fund and Philanthropic Ventures. As part of their training, the kids also learn about the intricate techniques of mural-painting. Ramirez teaches them to first draw the images on paper with charcoal, and then apply a monochromatic wash with Pthalo blue acrylic paint, designed to endow the mural with a vibrancy and to remove the wall's white coloring. They also learn the basics behind layering paints, and the importance of applying opposite colors; i.e. applying green to enhance red, applying yellow to bring out purple.

"It's a technique that's been passed on in the Chicano community," Ramirez explained, adding that he learned the process from a Chicano muralist in Los Angeles.

For both Ramirez and Clark-Herrera, whose salaries are contingent on receiving grants, the project is a truly a labor of love.

"I love working with them," Clark-Herrera said. "These teenagers, they're tapping into the lifeline of the culture here. They're fun. And they teach me about art and music."

The program has thus far created three other murals, with each one named by the kids : "Unite," situated at Cesar Chavez Elementary School; "Remembering Ravenswood High School -- East Palo Alto's Educational Sacrifice," located at Edison- Brentwood Academy; and "Etchings of Ravenswood Educational Process," painted on the front wall of Edison-McNair Academy.

The latter mural, dedicated to the theme of education, features intricately detailed symbols and figures that collectively look like hieroglyphics. The community's three major ethnic groups are represented by a Tongan drummer (symbolizing music education), a Mayan ballplayer (symbolizing sports) and an African mathematician who holds the solution to a geometric problem.

In another section of the mural, the Egyptian goddess Isis is seen talking to a kid with a computer, revealing to him the secrets of Ra, the Egyptian sun god.

"Now he's learning about space and science and technology from an Afro-centric point of view," Ramirez said.

Key to the mural is a lush Tree of Life, strewn with purple leaves, and meant to signify the kids' future.

"The school becomes a temple," Ramirez said. "Instead of just being a cinder-block mural, we've changed it to a temple that's being excavated, like an old ruin, and as students walk by, they can see the story (unfold)."

This mural, Ramirez said, was the hardest one to do, as it required a lot of detailed work. But his troupe of assistants came through with flying colors. Literally.

"I can't believe what we did," said Neha Maharaj, a Menlo Park teen who has worked on two murals. "Some people underestimate what kids can do."

E-mail Robyn Israel at [email protected]
For more information about the East Palo Alto Mural project, visit


Copyright © 2002 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.