Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fullerton Public Art: Whitewashing Mexican Culture

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

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Since as far back as 1939, Fullerton has had a shaky relationship with public art. The first major public art projects were commissioned during the Great Depression by the WPA. Perhaps the most famous of these murals is the “Pastoral California” mural on the west side of Plummer Auditorium. It was painted in 1934 by artist Charles Kassler. However, this enormous fresco only saw five years of public life before City Trustees ordered it painted over in 1939 because it had “lurid colors and somewhat grotesque figures” (Fullerton: A Pictorial History).

Let me pause there a moment and consider the content of the mural. It depicts Mexicans living happily and joyfully in a pre-Anglo California—celebrating, eating, riding horses, etc. Consider this. Beginning in the 1920s, there was an active KKK in Fullerton who targeted Mexicans. Also, Mexicans at this time were not living in peace and harmony with the land. They were living in segregated work camps and were treated as second-class citizens. So, from a racist white City Trustees’ perspective, the mural would probably have seemed pretty offensive. Thus, my hypothesis is that it was painted over not because it was a bad painting (any viewer can attest to its beauty), but because it celebrated Mexican culture, which at the time was seen as inferior to white/American culture.

The “Pastoral California” mural remained painted over for 56 years until, in 1997 it was restored. I was actually attending Fullerton High School at the time. Some of my friends, art students, helped with the restoration. I remember thinking, even then: Why would anyone have painted over something so beautiful?

Another WPA mural “The History of California” was painted in Fulleton in 1942 by “post-surealist” artist Helen Lundberg. It is located at the former City Hall (now the Fullerton Police Station). Like "Pastoral Calfornia," it was also painted over, this time by the good old Fullerton Police Department, when they took over the station in 1963. This mural depicts Anglos and Mexicans seeming to work together to develop California. I can just picture the police chief looking at that mural in 1963 and thinking “Fuck that. Paint over it.”

“The History of California” was restored in 1993, at a cost of over $80,000. When I read about this mural in Bob Ziebell’s Fullerton: A Pictorial History, I thought: Why have I never seen it before? Here’s why. The mural is located INSIDE the Fullerton police station, in a room not open to the public except by appointment. After reading about it, I eagerly walked over to the police station, to check it out. As I approached the entrance, I noticed a door was ajar, and I peaked inside. There was the mural! But it was half-covered by an obnoxious screen with traffic information on it, and a husky man in a polo shirt told me to leave and make an appointment and closed the door behind me. When I tried to make an appointment, the woman in charge said, due to renovation, that room will be closed for another week. Hopefully that “renovation” doesn’t include painting over the mural again.

There are other famous (and equally controversial) murals located at the Lemon underpass, near Valencia. By “controversial” I mean they celebrate Mexican culture. I guess, in Fullertoin, that counts as controversial. These murals, including the famous “The Town I Live In” mural, which is the inspiration for the title of this book, all deal with Mexican American identity. They were painted by the artist David Whalen, with assistance from community youth, in 1978. They were restored in 1998 by local artist Emigdio Vasquez.

As recently as 2008, City Council was once again discussing painting over these public murals. Shawn Nelson, former City Councilman and current Orange County Supervisor, was quoted as saying, regarding these murals "we need to get rid of that crap, like, right now." In a snarky reply, OC Weekly blogger Gustavo Arellano replied, “Like, you think the Virgin of Guadalupe is crap, Shawn? Like, no way!”

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Pastoral California

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The History of California (good luck trying to see this one).

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