Article By Kat Sawyer
If you’ve ridden BART out of Richmond in the past month, you have seen a new mural come to life where the Richmond greenway meets Carlson Blvd. The Watershed Project is very familiar with this section of the greenway, because it is the centerpiece of our “Greening the Last Mile” project, an effort that transformed the site from a vacant lot into a welcoming mini-park with an inviting entry plaza featuring benches, bike racks, trees and a meandering swale that simulates a creek flowing underneath the train tracks. You can learn more about this project on our website here.
I interviewed muralist Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez to find out the story behind this powerful new work of art called “Essential Workers of the Pullman Neighborhood”. The Watershed Project had the pleasure of working with Rebeca on a rain garden mural in the summer of 2018, so I am familiar with the joyful and collaborative approach that she brings to her work.
KS: What is the story of the mural? How did it come about?
RG: The mural began with a conversation I had with the staff at Groundwork Richmond. They wanted public art for this part of the Greenway. The park had become heavily tagged…It was originally going to honor the Latino immigrants who now make a large percentage of Pullman residents. But then COVID happened and the youth that I worked with had other ideas. I wrote two proposals. When my Neighborhood Public Arts grant was not funded, I turned to the East Bay Community Foundation, which paid for my time.
KS: How is the mural tied to the surrounding neighborhood?
RG: Neighbors and passersby posed for some of the figures in the mural. Local youth designed it and came up with the concept of showing people who get up very early to go to work to support their families.
KS: What are the stories within the mural? I understand that it is an homage to essential workers…
RG: Yes it is, but the stories are purely visual and the meaning, open to interpretation. That is something I love about representational and figurative art. There is a visual narrative but the meaning remains open.
KS: This mural is a powerful visual for BART riders. How did you imagine making that connection?
RG: From the very beginning I envisioned a large wall to capture the riders’ attention. I used to ride BART a lot before COVID and noticed the many homeless encampments along the way. This powerful visual always forced me to think about the state of our country, and then I thought, what other powerful visuals can bring hope to those who ride BART?
KS: How did a BART audience factor into the design process?
RG: I imagine those forced to take BART now do so because they are going to work and many have to be essential workers. I like to think that part of the reason the project was approved was because of the impact a large wall could have. Matt Holmes built the 40’ x 12′ wall with youth from Richmond Build and the Green Team in just two days.
KS: How did you get people involved?
RG: Groundwork had a lot to do with that. They recruited youth from their Green Team as well as from Richmond Build, and Youth Works. One of their board members applied for and received a grant from the City of Richmond, which went to pay for stipends and snacks for the youth. After the project started, we engaged with neighbors and passersby who gave ideas and engaged in conversation.
KS: What are the best ways to engage people in the creative process and honor neighborhood history and culture?
RG: The best way continues to be through public art projects that can involve all ages and local groups. Logistically this is difficult because of COVID and lack of funds, but it can be accomplished when the project is outdoors and several organizations collaborate with each other. People are so tired of staring at screens. Old and young are in desperate need of contact with others, even if it is distanced and wearing masks.
KS: How / Why did you become a community artist?
I slowly gravitated towards this role because I am a credentialed teacher, and also because of the influence that my youth experiences exerted in my vision of what an artist can be. In this vision, artists have a social duty to use their “superpowers” to denounce injustice and make dreams possible through their work.
KS: What is your next project?
RG: I am working on a new website (garcia-gonzalez.com) hoping to set up my store in time for the winter holidays. That is a large project. But in terms of art, I will continue painting portraits of people outside the cannon, this time of LGBTQI people.
Be on the lookout for more public art from Rebeca around Richmond and beyond!