Posts tagged murals

During a trip to Sequoia National Park a few months ago, I spent some time in Exeter, a small Californian town located in the San Joaquin Valley at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in Tulare County. The changing landscapes surrounding the town already inspired thoughts about the area in pre and post European settlement times, the history of the railroad in the west, commercial agricultural practices, and water use. But Exeter’s 28 murals downtown – each illustrating the changing relationships with the landscape from the town’s settlement to the present – really underlined this relationship between land and community. These murals are worth checking out: curated historical California fun for the whole family. The past follows visitors everywhere, literally around every corner in the town of Exeter.

All photos by Jessica Roberts.

All photos by Jessica Roberts.

The mural above depicts the Visalia Electric Railroad in Exeter in 1915 and 1945; it was painted in 2001 by artists Michael Stanford, Yuri Somov, and Matt Hemsworth. The Visalia Railroad Company was incorporated in 1874, and by 1898 the rails had been extended south from Visalia to Southern Pacific’s East Side Line at Exeter.

In the early 1880’s hydroelectric power from the Kaweah River – about 15 miles north of Exeter – was being promoted, and an electric inter-urban railroad was proposed for Tulare County. In 1904 the Visalia Electric Railroad Company was incorporated. The rail transported mostly oranges but also plums, peaches, lemons, grapes, and dairy. With the convenience of shipping and the accessibility to water resources, more land was converted from natural planes to cattle, dairy, and fruit tree production.


A mural around the corner painted by Colleen Mitchell-Veyna and Morgan McCall in 1996, depicting a scene of orange pickers in the 1930s. As I drove out of the town center I thought about this image, about the character of the landscape that had taken on for over a century. An overlay of past and present was easy to imagine.


With the increase of automobiles the railway lines popularity declined, and passenger use was discontinued by 1924. By the 1940’s freight service was in decline, even with the increase of produce production in the area, and continued to do so with the increasing use of trucks for moving goods. The last shipment was in 1990 and the rail was abandoned 1992, 9 years before the mural to commemorate the history of the rail was painted.

A 20 minute drive northeast brought us to Kaweah Lake, the source of the hydroelectric power that once transported and connected passengers and goods in Tulare Country. The water levels were noticeably low, and there was a light mist in the air. I wish I had an image of the lake now, after a few months with heavy and historic winter rain, for comparison.


I returned from this trip wondering how high-speed rail and long-term drought conditions might transform the use of the land and the interurban connections of goods and people today. When will future developments of Exeter be archived and interpreted on the streets of the downtown (hopefully in mural form too), and what version of the past will be deemed worthy of capturing for posterity?


Photos by Yiran Wang

Photo by Yiran Wang

Photo by Yiran Wang

Photo by Yiran Wang

Recent posts from my AHBE Lab colleagues Heejee and Wendy have have shown how  the public art and murals strewn throughout Los Angeles’ many neighborhoods helps define the city and its culture. This isn’t necessarily unique or new. A recent visit to the Getty Center is where I got to see splendid 1,600 years old murals from the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, Gansu, China. Lying on the fringe of the Gobi Desert, the ancient oasis town Dunhuang became the heart of the Silk Road, a nexus where culture, merchandise, and religion were exchanged. The Mogao Caves contain 492 Buddhist temples with incredibly intricate statues and mural paintings, and now they’re here in Los Angeles.

Currently at the Getty, visitors can experience three 1:1 scale replicas of the original Mogao Caves, complete with mural reproductions covering the caves’ walls. The accurate fascimiles permit visitors to get up close to the statues and ancient paintings, an extraordinary experience for Angelenos to see the murals’ numerous details. This up-close opportunity is rather special, as the original Mogao Caves are always too crowded in China. Additionally, there is also an exhibition of some other paintings, Sutra manuscripts, and other works of artwork, all part of Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road.

Among all the breathtaking works, there is one dominant form of Dunhuang painting: Sutra painting. It is a large-scale and comprehensive religious painting illustrating a sutra – a  canonical scripture – with a large Buddha at its center and miniature stories drawn around the figure. The painting tells a transformative narrative highlighting the fundamental and final pursuit of worship of the Buddha – an iconic static image, whose solemnity captures the viewer’s gaze, thereby brings in the viewer or worshipper into a process of comprehension.

Cave 85, view of the interior, Late Tang dynasty (848–907 CE). Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang, China. Photo: Dunhuang Academy

Cave 85, view of the interior, Late Tang dynasty (848–907 CE). Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang, China. Photo: Dunhuang Academy

This ancient visualization method of showing both a transformative process and communicating information related to the faith is similar to what we do as landscape architects when we place diagrams and renderings together on boards. Realizing this parallel while at The Getty, I felt a wonderful connection between us in the present with the artists of the past.

Other paintings at the exhibit depict the Tang Dynasty architectural style – mostly emperor landscape – a Pure Land Buddhism style represented visually by a great flat platform floating on a lotus pond with Buddhas sitting in the middle and apsaras (a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology) flying above. This typical Pure Land Buddhism vision had a great impact on ancient Chinese architecture and landscape design, alongside the Japanese landscape through the Japanese branch of Pure Land Buddhism, Jōdo Shu.

Photo by Yiran Wang

Photo by Yiran Wang

There is an overwhelming amount of artwork, manuscripts, and other objects to see at this exhibition. I left amazed by how well preserved the colors of the murals are after thousands of years, alongside the unique poses and vivid facial expressions of each figure decorating each mural.

At last, there is one short excerpt from the Diamond Sutra I would like to share from the exhibition, words which offered me a memorable moment of tranquility and joyful melancholy while experiencing one of history’s greatest examples of mural art:

Photo by Yiran Wong

Photo by Yiran Wong

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Culver City mural. All photos by Heejae Lee.

A few weeks ago my colleague Wendy posted, “Capturing Los Angeles in 27 Exposures“, sharing our team’s ongoing photographic assignment devised to document each of our unique perspectives about Los Angeles.

Equipped with a disposable camera and 27 exposures, my film roll of Los Angeles revealed a gravitation towards public art – specifically street art and murals. I had captured various types of artwork across the city – ranging from Downtown, the Arts District, Culver City, across to West LA – each conveying messages reflective of their respective communities. Murals aren’t just visual landmarks, but also the means in which distinct communities can communicate their unique spirit, voices, and concerns. I find that these expressions of art are always present if you look in the right places, snapshots of the people and their voices all too often missed as we speed by in our cars.

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CicLavia over the weekend  - Photo by Heejae Lee

CicLavia over the weekend – Photo by Heejae Lee

As designers charged with defining the landscape we strive to create and curate spaces. Spaces that bring positive change to the community, connecting the environment, while narrating a story. We strive to make an intimate connection between spatial landscapes and the user through the examination of patterns, maps, and demographics.

As a designer, one of the great points of inspiration in the study of curating the spatial landscape are people themselves. Not only from a demographic or statistical perspective, but by the process of visualizing the faces and experiences of the individual that shape and inhabit the design.

On that note, an inspiration of mine is an artist who goes by the moniker, JR. His works can be found throughout the world, both in rural and urban environments. His art highlights the faces of the community, pasted on walls and adjacent buildings at gigantic scale, reclaiming and transforming spaces by assigning a “face” to buildings and often abandoned structures. With each face and surface narrating a story, JR’s artwork creates an intimate connection with the community while clearly communicating who lives there.

As I look back to my own urban environment, what inspires me as a designer is the art of bringing communities and the faces of that community to light through inquiry and design…to not allow the design process people, but to have people process the design.