Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Know Your Local Murals!

Today, in an effort to teach my students about local culture, we took a little tour of murals around Fullerton High School and Fullerton College.  I am a firm believer in expanding my teaching beyond the classroom to emphasize the point that academic pursuits aren't just boring, abstract exercises, but rather are explorations of things in the real world.  This is why the focus of my courses is writing about local issues--to emphasize that academic research and writing is actually relevant to my students' actual lives and communities.

We began our tour with the crown jewel of Fullerton public art: Pastoral California, the 75-foot long fresco on the side of Plummer Auditorium.  To prepare for our tour, I had my students read an article I'd written about this mural, based on a lot of research I'd done at the public library.  The mural was painted in 1934 by a man with one hand named Charles Kassler.  It was a WPA mural, the second largest fresco commissioned by the WPA during the Great Depression.  Pastoral California depicts a pre-USA California, and includes Spanish and Mexican figures like Pio Pico and Jose Antonio Yorba.  The mural reminds us that California used to be Mexico.  

In the 1930s, Fullerton was not the most racially tolerant place.  Just ten years earlier, there was an active Ku Klux Klan that included city council members, local businessmen, and Louis Plummer, founder and superintendent of Fullerton Union High School and Fullerton College.  City leaders basically felt that Pastoral California was "too Mexican," so they ordered it painted over in 1939, and it remained covered for 58 years, until 1997, when it was restored by a massive community effort.  The story of the mural tells the story of Fullerton in a lot of ways.  I had my students look at the mural, notebooks and pens in hand, jotting down observations and thoughts, like field researchers or reporters.  Then we all sat down and freely wrote our thoughts and reactions.  Here's what I wrote:

It's strange how one can pass by a mural many times and never stop to ponder it, or to really look carefully at it.  What we are up to this semester is looking carefully at things we take for granted.  This is part of what education is all about: stopping long enough to ponder and research things we thought we understood.  Upon further reflection, we find that these things are actually way deeper and more complex than we imagined.

Then we discussed the mural together, sharing our thoughts and insights.

Next, we headed over to the Fullerton College Art building, to look at the first and only exterior mural on campus, a large untitled tile mosaic by Marlo Bartels, which was completed just a year ago.  We talked about why there are no other exterior murals at Fullerton College.  I suggested that, at least since the 1930s, Fullerton has had a pretty shaky relationship with public art.  It's considered, somehow, risky, which art is supposed to be.

Bartels' mural depicts plants and animals that are native to the area.  It also depicts orange trees, which are not native, but came to dominate the local landscape.  Near the center of the mural is an old electric "Red Car."  I gave my students a brief history of the Red Cars, which up to the 1940s were a widely-used form of public transit in Southern California.  The Red Cars remind us of a time when this area had decent public transportation.  I explained how, in the 1940s, General Motors and Union Oil conspired to buy out the Red Cars and dismantle them, so people would buy cars.  This indeed happened, and contributed greatly to our current auto/pollution situation, and shitty public transit.

As we reflected on the demise of the Red Cars, we talked about the importance of murals, how they can be these public conversation pieces, inviting us to reflect on our communities.

The final mural on our tour was the strangest.  It's in the relatively new Social Sciences building and was painted a couple years ago by LA-based artist Gronk.  In the 1970s, Gronk and fellow artists formed an avant-garde Chicano artist crew called ASCO, out of East L.A.  I told my students the story of how Gronk and friends graffitied their names outside LACMA in the 1970s, as a statement on how young Chicano art was not being represented in the major museums.  30 years later, ASCO had a massive retrospective exhibit at LACMA.  The moral of the story is: Don't dismiss young radical artists because in 30 years their work could be hanging in major museums.

This concluded our mural tour.  I ended by encouraging my students to go forth with notebooks and pens in hand and explore their communities and write!

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