Over the last five weeks, seven Richmond teens—under the guidance of two adults, Loriana Valente and Pancho Peskador—have spent hours spray painting the walls of a building in Richmond. On the corner of 41st Street and Macdonald Avenue they worked, transforming the dull brown walls of the West Contra Costa County Children’s Services building into a vibrantly colorful depiction of their vision of life in Richmond.
Their work was funded by the Contra Costa LGBTQ Youth Advocacy Collaborative, a partnership with other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning advocacy groups in the Bay Area to promote acceptance and understanding of the LBGTQ community. According to Jerry Peterson, a facilitator with the group, it is the first mural in Richmond to celebrate the LGBTQ community. “There’s no place in Richmond where there’s a rainbow,” he said.
On Thursday, the young artists showcased their final product, a mural entitled “Imagination is the pathway to change.” The colors in the mural are eye-catching: Saturated yellows, reds, purples, blues and pinks jump out from the non-descript stretch of Macdonald Avenue. The playful but strong images of people and animals stand at over six feet tall—visible from blocks away.
Valente dreamed up this project for the young people she works with at West County Child & Adolescent Services as a clinician, providing outpatient therapy for children with social, emotional and behavioral problems. “Summertimes are really slow. I had this idea to do something fun and exciting,” Valente said. For Valente, who has always been passionate about art, a mural just made the most sense, she said.
Valente worked with Raymond Neuman, project manager of West Contra Costa County Children’s Services, to raise the money for the mural. Their initial application was rejected because they applied for a grant to support an “innovative” project and Valente said she was told painting a mural was not innovative. “So we went back and re-worked it to apply for the mini-grant,” said Valente, which offered $2,500- $5,000 to fund a project by a non-profit that would welcome and support the LGBTQ community.
The Contra Costa LGBTQ Youth Advocacy Collaborative, a partnership with Family Acceptance Project at SF State University, the Rainbow Community Center and the Contra Costa County Division of Mental Health, provides these mini-grants to organizations helping to support and serve the LGBTQ community. “The big hope is that we can help gay and lesbian youth feel safe,” said Ben Barr, the executive director of the Rainbow Community Center.
Through the mural, Peterson and LGBTQ leaders are hoping to reach out to the largely Latino and black community in Richmond and foster acceptance of the LGBTQ youth and adults within those communities. Peterson said that in Contra Costa County there is a misguided belief that being gay or lesbian is a “white person” issue. “We’re serving hundreds of LGBTQ youth in the county and at least half are youth of color. This kind of public statement is an incredible and vibrant step forward,” he said.
“It’s not our purpose to change people’s values or beliefs. It’s to help
people understand there’s a wide diversity and they have certain basic human rights,” Peterson continued. “Regardless of values, we have the right to keep all youth safe.”
The grant from the advocacy collaborative helped drive the message of the mural, but the kids who worked on it spent a lot of time thinking about how to take a broad vision and theme and turn it into a huge piece of artwork. “We did a lot of talking, which annoyed the heck out of them, because it’s a quiet group,” Valente said. The first few group meetings they spent discussing peer issues and focusing on the idea of inclusiveness.
To help the creativity flow, Valente and Peskador, a visual artist who has created numerous murals in Oakland and San Francisco, also took the kids out of Richmond to see other street artists’ work. “We did mural walks with the kids. We went to Oakland to see Pancho’s work and the Mission to see some of the murals there,” said Valente. She said the budding artists were inspired by what they saw and came back excited to get started.
The next few sessions the group met to brainstorm ideas, images and words for the walls. Peskador produced sketches to help guide them and outlined the final product on the wall for the kids to fill in. But, he insists, his part in the project was minimal. “These are people with many ideas and a lot of passion. I’m just the guy who put everything together,” he said. “Give all the credit to them.”
As you walk along the building, each artist’s contribution jumps out at you. Starting from the building’s parking lot on 41st Street, you encounter a giant bright green hummingbird. Valente says this is Peskador’s piece. “He’s known for his hummingbirds,” she said. Bright sunflowers pop at different spots along the wall, a local favorite of everyone in the group, said Valente. There is a break-dancer depicted mid-headspin, a nod to spray painting’s origins in the hip-hop community—something Valente said they spent a lot of time discussing. Just past the dancer along the bottom of the mural is the word PRIDE drawn in the traditional tagger style with big bubbly letters. This is Cash Da Silva’s addition, who at 12 years old is the youngest in the group.
The bodies of two long, lean dragons undulate in bright green down the wall, connecting disparate images together: A girl holding her heart outside of her chest in front, an enormous dream catcher containing the Earth inside its web, the Chevron refinery nestled in the hills, snow covered peaks, a boy on a skateboard (Quentin McCoy, who added this image, is rarely seen off of a skateboard) and a rainbow. Out of a spray can held by one of the dragons comes another rainbow. Within it are quotes from three of the artists, and the mural’s name. The first says, “Love has no gender,” which was added by 16-year-old Destiny Trammell.
The second quote says, “I’d rather be different than a copyright.” McCoy coined this sentence, and during the celebration he made a very brief speech thanking his friends “old and new” for supporting and accepting him for “who I am.” The last quote, and the title of the mural, “Imagination is the pathway to change,” was from Elsy McGowan. McGowan said she was really moved by the experience of participating in the mural. “I really wanted to try something new,” said McGowan. “Having this experience has changed me.”
There mural ends with a rendering of Bayrad Rustin, an openly gay African-American activist who helped end segregation through nonviolent civil rights protests starting in the 1940s, and a quote from him: “Freedom is never a final act.” Because he was open about his sexual preference during a fiercely homophobic era, Rustin often had to remain in the background of the civil right’s movement and was at times shunned by the members of the movement he helped create. Eventually he became a public figure and was a long time advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Along the Macdonald side of the mural, where it wraps around the building from 41st Street, there is a list of names acknowledging all who participated in the project or who have helped Richmond’s young people over the years. Among the list of names is Isabel Emmerson. Emmerson worked with Richmond children in the 1980s and ‘90s as director of Girl’s Club. She said she had tears in her eyes when she arrived on Thursday and saw the mural for the first time. “That’s an honor. You do this work for the love of it, not for fame or money,” she said.
Desi W.O.M.E., founder of the Community Rejuvenation Project in Oakland— a group that promotes positive artistic and cultural expression through street art around the community—attended Thursday’s unveiling and said that a mural like this one is significant in the street art community, too. “Hip-hop and aerosol community has a history of being homophobic. I think it’s great what happened here in Richmond,” he said. “There’s a lot of blank walls in Richmond and we want to see youth filling them, helping to define Richmond through their art.”
Valente and Neuman say that filling more walls is part of their plan. “In order to engage young people, you have to keep pushing your own limits,” said Neuman. He said he would like to see walls around schools used for this purpose, and although making murals is not cheap, especially during a time of budget cuts to the arts, he thinks it’s possible through collaboration. “You pool resources. Look what happened here—a stunning, beautiful mural,” he said.
Valente said that they have already received another $5,000 to continue the mural along the rest of the building next summer.