Ever curious and hungry for adventure, Elaine Masters is a passionate traveler and digital storyteller. As founder of Tripwellgal.com she thrives on variety, from following fishing trends to cocktail culture and uncovering unsung destinations. Elaine hunts for stories, pictures, and video across the planet from her San Diego base. A scuba diving and seafood fanatic, she agrees with Helen Keller that, “Life’s an adventure or nothing.”
The graceful homes and businesses of San Diego’s La Jolla Village undulate in the light above cliffs and coves on the coastline. With ocean waves surrounding the town on three sides, this sun-drenched setting couldn’t be more naturally beautiful.
Sea lions dip in the waves and roll across sandstone cliffs. Cormorants perch on Torrey Pines above cool water that flashes orange with Garibaldi fish protecting their nests. Nature draws thousands of visitors to the coastline yearly, but those inspired by big art walk the city streets to study a surprising kaleidoscope unfolding on walls and buildings.
The Murals of La Jolla have turned the town into a revolving gallery of curated colors and shapes.
International Phenomenon lands locally
Mural art has captured the world’s attention over recent decades. The most famous illustrations are awash with social commentary and free-spirited collaborations.
In Brazil, street art evolved from tagging, where stolen materials, often tar (piche) grew into a phenomenon called pichacao. Rio de Janeiro shifted the tone from outrage to acceptance in 1999 with the “Nao pixe, grafite” (Don’t tag, graffiti) movement. Thirty-five regional artists were invited to a special exhibition, forever blurring the line between formal and informal street art. Ten years later, the Brazilian government passed Law 706/07 which further decriminalized street art.
Once granted the permission of property owners, complex murals exploded across Brazil’s urban buildings. Art lovers around the world took notice. Perhaps through serendipity or international art conversations, the concept of giant, privately-sanctioned artwork inspired the Murals of La Jolla and its first projects in 2010.
Through the La Jolla Community Foundation, murals are curated by an advisory board. This board is composed of local leaders of visual arts organizations under the auspices of the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library. The Athenaeum has fostered art, events, performances, exhibitions and lectures since 1899.
Together, they’re turning La Jolla into San Diego’s art gallery.
Keys to the La Jolla Mural Arts success
Over the last eight years, twenty-nine paintings have emerged, but conversations started much earlier. Key was deciding to include only private properties and thus avoiding lengthy discussions about public spaces. The board worked to gain the permission of property owners.
Lynda Forsha, Principal of Art Advisory Services, is the project curator.
“When we started,” she says, “we talked and talked about what the project should be. It could be sculpture and then we discussed sites, which were limited in La Jolla. Sculpture is also heavy, difficult to move around and you need a lot of it to have presence.”
While there were few open spaces, La Jolla had an abundance of open walls. The board decided on painted and printed murals.
The first site was immense. It was tall and narrow, over three stories high — a blank alley canvas where an artist’s intervention could be transformative. The property owner, David Guss of La Jolla, is an art collector. When approached by the board, he pulled a sketch out of his collection, saying that he and artist Kim MacConnel had talked about painting the piece on his tower site. Forsha and the committee shared his vision to do “interventions on walls, not on fronts of buildings but in-between spaces.”
Soon the Mural Project was inaugurated, and MacConnel began painting the tower freestyle from a scissors lift.
Another fundamental key to success was making the artwork temporary. Most of the pieces are printed and attached to walls that are one to six stories tall, and most of them remain in place for only two to four years. Before the immense prints degrade, they are replaced by new works.
There are a few exceptions such as ‘Brain/Cloud with Seascape and Palm Tree’ by John Baldessari. Since 2011, it has hovered on a wall above La Jolla Cove and is visible from the George’s on the Cove restaurant terraces. Born in National City, Baldessari is close to 90 years old. The Tate Museum in London organized a retrospective of his work, which went to the Metropolitan in New York and LACMA in Los Angeles.
Forsha admits, “We’re very lucky to have this incredible artist and mural.”
Exposed to western sunlight and beginning to disappear, the Mural Project Board decided to reprint and re-install the iconic work.
In 2018, a mural celebrating the architecture of La Jolla’s Salk Science Institute was installed on one of the most visible walls in downtown. It’s a multi-colored pair of images, one over the other, of the Institute and the man responsible for the internationally award-winning design, the architect Louis Kahn.
Inspired by this location, artist Koto Ezawa created one of the Mural Project’s most complicated images. The printer had never seen such a complex digital file. Ezawa calls his work “painting and drawing on computer.” He also creates lightboxes, projections, and collages of his themes.
Not everyone in the community is happy about handing over their walls. The owner of the building facing Ezawa’s portrait took the site of Mel Blocher’s ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ super graphic and installed a more pedestrian triptych supporting the San Diego Symphony. Another site impinged on a parking lot and the owner asked the board to reimburse his lost earnings during the installation.
Not all the Project’s murals are lofty scenes. In one case, a favorite dive bar is featured. Local artist Raoul Guerrero fixated on a scene inside the Whaling Bar, once located in the La Valencia Hotel. The piece illustrates an imagined scene in Playback, the last novel that Raymond Chandler published after living in the village for nearly a decade. The cover of the book, the original bar painting, and the style of an earlier time, are deftly recreated in Guerrero’s printed brushstrokes now suspended above a parking lot near the bar’s original location.
Each of the works present their own challenges in part because the chosen artists are not primarily muralists. They are invited because of their body of work, and put the pieces together after many conversations. When it came time to replace the first piece with a new work by Heather Gwen Martin, Project curator Forsha was surprised.
“When we told Kim we were taking his mural down he said, ‘you know, Heather was my student!'” The connection and link was like a passing of the baton from one generation to the next.
Many visit La Jolla for the sun and natural beauty but miss the murals. With free maps available inside the Atheneum, make time to see the art. There are also monthly tours. This summer, the Night Owl Mural Crawl includes libations for a minimal cost on the last Wednesday of the month. Call for a reservation: 858-454-5872.