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November 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Board of Contributors: A very small story about a very big picture Board of Contributors: A very small story about a very big picture (November 24, 2004)

by Gerald Brett @dropcapOf"Times">n the morning of Friday, Nov. 12, a tall Palo Altan from the West African nation of Guinea walked from his apartment on College Avenue over to California Avenue.

The journey took fewer than five minutes, and it was one the youthful 40-year-old had traveled frequently, especially in the last few months. At the alleyway next to Country Sun Natural Foods he stood in front of massive new mural covering four-fifths of the market's 100-foot-long wall. His eyes scanned the artwork intently, thoughtfully; passersby joined him. Many had seen and spoken with the man before, some in English, some in French.

The pavement near the wall was drenched from Thursday's rain, covered with soggy, trampled leaves. Two young employees of the market, setting up tables and chairs for customers who might brave the crisp autumn chill, waved to the man.

"He who learns teaches." -- Ethiopian proverb.

Jim Stevens, the CEO of Country Sun, looked over from his second-floor office at the newly completed mural, and saw the man. Almost every day for the last two months he'd seen him, usually from early morning.

When he'd first appeared in September, while summer hung on stubbornly, the wall had been as blank as a drive-in movie screen at noon. People who saw paint cans and brushes assumed that the wall was going to get a fresh coat of paint.

Then he began to draw.

Using a construction scaffold, he worked with rhythmic fervor, referring occasionally to a cardboard sheet from a briefcase filled with notes. He first drew what looked like a vast sea of abstract markings. Stevens likened it to a huge, mysterious Chinese line drawing. But as days passed an alluring scene in black and white emerged.

Soon, the throngs visiting California Avenue each day noticed that the ambiguous markings were beginning to form discernible shapes. In the middle, where the wall rose to its highest point, a sun showed through dreamy clouds. Rolling hills materialized below.

The observers, regulars and passersby, were witnessing an artist at work in an outdoor studio.

Soon he drew in tiny lakes, and trees. A field of poppies and giant blades of grass appeared. In the foreground, surrounded by stones, they recognized the outline of a quail.

"Anticipate the good so that you may enjoy it." -- Ethiopian proverb.

In late September, with a hint of autumn in the blustery wind, the artist painted a quail brown -- the first color, startling as a lustrous white star in a coal-black night sky. A rainbow rose from bushes as if it were a vision from his imagination.

Small crowds gathered each day through October and into the early wintry days of November. Teachers brought students to show them that art is something created, not manufactured. Parents came with children to see that no computerized special effect is as awesome as the one flowing from an artist's creativity.

By Nov. 11, the painter from Conakry, the huge capital city of Guinea, had finished his mural. California Avenue was now home to a giant forest, as gentle as our fondest spring dream, where blank space previously resided. To a first-time viewer, it was as if the street one morning awakened to a breathtaking wilderness once hidden from view.

"Earth is the queen of beds." -- Nigerian proverb.

So, on the morning of Nov. 12 the artist made one long, final inspection of his creation. Then he crouched at the bottom right corner of the 82-foot-long mural, took a brush from his satchel, dipped it into a tiny jar of paint, and signed: "Mohammed."

If it had been a formal document, he would have signed, "Mohammed Soumah." Friends call him "Slim." On California Avenue, scores of people now called the lanky artist from Guinea their friend.

In Guinea, Soumah was a muralist, an illustrator of Children's books and a editorial cartoonist. He moved to California in 2000 with his wife, Palo Alto native Julie Montgomery, a teacher in San Jose -- they met in West Africa, where she worked with the Peace Corps. He has a day job at the Stanford Bookstore.

Soumah's mural concept was selected by the Palo Alto Public Art Commission in May 2003 from among six proposals. The fee was split: $5,000 from Country Sun, $4,000 from the Public Art Commission and $3,000 from the California Avenue Area Development Association.

The day after he signed his mural, Soumah left for Guinea to visit his 15-year-old twin sons, and will return to Palo Alto in early January. A ceremony celebrating his mural will take place next spring.

When he had nearly finished the mural, Soumah told Stevens the scale of the project had at first overwhelmed him.

"I was nervous," he said with a smile. "Could I really paint such a big picture?"

Visitors can decide for themselves if he succeeded. "Only when you have crossed the river, can you say the crocodile has a lump on its snout." -- Ashanti proverb.

Gerald Brett is a member of the Palo Alto Public Art Commission and of the Weekly's Board of Contributors. He is founder/owner of a business on California Avenue, Language Pacifica. He can be e-mailed at

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