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Everyone has a say in community mural

on November 2, 2009

The inauguration of President Barack Obama inspired Michele Seville to build empathy and understanding between races. The vehicle she chose?  A mural. For the past three years, as the arts and culture manager for the city of Richmond, Seville funded small projects in five or six different neighborhoods.  This year, Seville decided to use her entire $75,000 public art budget on a single mural that she hopes will to bring all races together.

The main challenge of the project is to accurately depict the diversity of Richmond residents. Richmond is about a third Latino, a third black, 20 percent white, 15 percent Asian and 3 percent “other.”  So Seville turned to UCLA professor and muralist Judith Baca, who has used the mural-creation process to build cross-cultural understanding since 1969.

Baca spent the first weekend of October gathering memories and old photos from residents to begin developing a design for a community mural. “In the unique individual story we find a way to reach each of the people’s sense of humanity—and in that humanity we are common,” said Baca.

The Pan American Unity mural by Diego Rivera

The Pan American Unity mural by Diego Rivera

Fred Davis Jackson, 71, organized a group of African-American seniors to participate in the workshop with Baca.  He worried that because Baca is Latina, black participants wouldn’t trust her to represent them. But Baca began the workshop with a video about a mural she made in Los Angeles, which wove stories of blacks and Latinos together.  After participants watched the video, Jackson said, they were willing to share their stories.

“I was surprised by how generous people were with their experiences,” said Eduardo Pineda, who is coordinating mural outreach for the Richmond Art Center.

During the workshop, Jackson shared that he grew up in the segregated south, went to Europe during World War II and returned home to participate, in uniform, in lunch counter sit-ins.  As a twenty-year Richmond resident, Jackson is happy that the mural process is bringing different races together. “This mural wouldn’t impress me if it were just African-Americans or just Hispanics,” he said.

Organizers wanted to ensure that other cultural groups were also represented in the mural. Before meeting Courtney Cummings of the Native Wellness Center, organizers were concerned about a lack of American Indian participants.  Cummings, whose heritage includes the Northern Cheyenne, Arikara and Creek tribes, said she felt honored to bring other Native American families to the workshops.  “Anything I can do to help society know we’re still alive—we’re not only in history books,” she said. Cummings’ parents came to Oakland in the 1950s as a part of the federal government’s Urban Indian Relocation Program.

Baca asked participants to write their memories on note cards.  At first many of the American Indian participants weren’t sure what to write. She was impressed, she said, that Baca was able to learn elders’ stories by speaking with them one on one during the workshop. “If they don’t feel comfortable, they won’t say anything,” Cummings said.

The workshops, which also involved disabled people, youth of all races (including a large contingent of Laotians), and arts commissioners, were only the beginning of the process. Baca returned to Los Angeles with the stories and historical photographs she collected over the weekend. She and her team hope to visually represent the uniqueness of Richmond’s residents and history in the final mural.  “Everyone who said something profound – and many people said simple profound things –will affect the way the piece looks in the end,” said Baca.

Due to recent budget cuts, Seville cut 15 percent of her program budget, but the mural project remains untouched. Baca will return with a digital draft of the piece in January to show the workshop participants.  The mural will be installed near the Civic Center by the end of June.

The Mural Tradition: Mission Dolores to Judith Baca in Richmond|On view: October 23 – November 28, 2009
Richmond Art Center; Community Gallery Cases A/B|From Sargent Johnson’s 1949 City Hall mural to the current commissioning of famed community muralist Judy Baca, Richmond murals span three decades. In this display the city’s murals are placed within a regional time line that includes the 17th Century Mission Dolores altar paintings created by indigenous peoples for Spanish missionaries and the frescos of Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera in the 1930s.


  1. Fred Shanafelt on November 5, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Nice job Callie. One comment — I wasn’t sure who was who in the first picture. Love you, Dad

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