Artist Maria de Los Angeles on murals and storytelling
Creates new public art in Glen Ellen
By Tracy Salcedo
Cougars, doves, Dunbar, and butterflies. A rainbow and every color of the rainbow. People making and holding; a peace sign of waving vines. Dreams without borders and a phoenix rising. Story maps, artist Maria de Los Angeles and I decided over coffee in Jazmin Vargas’s bright new Garden Court Cafe. Story maps of Glen Ellen, of the Sonoma Valley, of the places we live and the lives we lead.
As I approached de Los Angeles’s new mural on the south side of the freshly remodeled building on the corner of Arnold Drive and Carquinez Avenue, I found myself being sucked in. First the colors, bold and vivid, and then the shapes, emerging from the colors, and then the specifics of images, big and small, familiar and jarring, sparking curiosity.
I couldn’t stop looking. I was late for the interview.
But that was okay, because engagement and connection is what de Los Angeles works toward. She wants people to linger: “If I can get you in front of it, how long can I keep you in front of it?”
Her Glen Ellen murals, titled Valley of Dreams and A Galaxy of Hope, are described as “kaleidoscopes of color” in press releases from the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (SVMA), which coordinated the public art project. They are designed to be enjoyed from different distances, by someone who might only be driving by, or someone who wants to post to Instagram, or someone who will pass the mural day to day — “a slow read to a fast read,” depending on the person, de Los Angeles explained.
The murals were installed over the week prior to a community celebration on July 10, with the help of Glen Ellen’s Sarah Zbinden and de Los Angeles’s husband, Ryan Bonillo. The process, de Los Angeles explained, included conducting hours of interviews with local residents, taking notes, and then creating drawings inspired by those conversations. She used the drawings—between 200 and 300 of them—to place and then paint the images on two mural canvases, one a 12-foot square, the second 12 feet wide and 7 feet tall, made expressly for installation on exterior walls. Once the canvases were complete, they were rolled up and shipped to Glen Ellen.
That’s where Zbinden stepped in, unrolling the murals and affixing them to blank walls much as you would install wallpaper, using adhesive and rollers, according to Steven Sorkin, the building owner who commissioned the murals. On the day before the public unveiling, all that remained on the to-do list was to apply clear coats to protect the works and to finish the murals’ edges. Clear coats, which protect the art against ultraviolet (UV) damage, will be applied annually to ensure the murals remain vibrant. It’s the first outdoor mural de Los Angeles has created in Northern California, and she hopes it leads to more opportunities— including, perhaps, a project working with students at Dunbar School. Though de Los Angeles drew inspiration from farther afield than Glen Ellen— including her upbringing and studying the works of impressionists, abstract artists, and Mexican painter/muralist Diego Rivera, the town became a focal point because it was able to provide the blank slates (the building walls) and the sponsors (Stephen and Holly Sorkin). Viewers with the time to explore will find references to Dunbar School, living with mountain lions, and wildfire.
But de Los Angeles doesn’t shy away from the controversial. Born in Mexico, raised in Santa Rosa, and now working in New York, she also incorporated references to social justice, immigration and integration, and climate change. Andy Lopez, a Latino youth killed by a Sonoma County sheriff in 2013, is mentioned by name. A salmon caught in a bubble cradled by human hands, in her mind, represents how life circles back, the bubble symbolizing the fragility of the environment the salmon lives in.
Is Glen Ellen, and the greater community, ready for issues like these to be folded into public art? Her work is “not an opinion,” de Los Angeles explained, but rather an “entryway” to conversations about experiences, even if those experiences are uncomfortable and the conversations difficult. There are “no boundaries,” in these works, and the connections viewers make, like my linking the phoenix to the 2017 wildfires or seeing the Grateful Dead’s Dancing Bears in the figures walking over the rainbow, were sometimes intentional and sometimes not. “The audience interprets with what they’ve seen,” she said. “Some might understand, some might not.”
According to the SVMA, de Los Angeles’s works incorporate “ancestors, transition, journey, and basic humanity, among other themes, and often also include a positive focus on serenity, love, and peace.” The Glen Ellen murals incorporate all of these themes, and can be read like “a very long poem” about “hope for the future and the connections we have with each other and with our environment,” de Los Angeles said.
For us, here in Glen Ellen, we can read that poem daily. That sigh you hear echoing down the valley? That’s me again, finding another story in the murals.
Glen Ellen’s Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning writer and editor.