Mural project brushes forth in Visalia

After it was decided to move the mural project off-site from a Visalia school campus, a blank wall on West Houston Avenue and North Rinaldi Street became the next target for the painting.(Rigo Moran)

Visalia City Council moves forward with a mural project from a community coalition of young residents

VISALIA – A unanimous vote from city council has reanimated a mural project in the northern part of the city that was previously brushed aside.

On May 6, the Visalia City Council voted unanimously to move forward with a proposed mural project in North Visalia, which the city’s Mural Commission had previously rejected. More than two dozen people came to the meeting to promote the project, many of them high school students who have been collaborating on the design for several years and who spoke passionately about the process.

The mural project is a collaborative effort between HEAL (Healing, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership) and the Urbanist Collective that initially took shape in 2020. The project was intended to be created on one of the Visalia Unified School District campuses to reflect the community’s acceptance of diversity and inclusivity, but an inability to come to an agreement on the design ultimately led the collaboration to move the project off-site.

Well, Urbanist Collective program manager Reggie Gamboa knew just the spot, a blank wall located at 1500 West Houston Avenue. In an interview with The Sun-Gazette, Gamboa said he grew up in the neighborhood, knows the owners and has wanted to paint the wall since he was a young man. Gamboa got his start as an artist through graffiti art, something he now teaches young people to do in constructive ways.

Gamboa, who runs several programs with young artists including formerly leading a graffiti art club at Riverway Elementary School, helped the students design the new mural. He said that one of the rules of his club is that students will be kicked out if they graffiti public spaces.

“Art is a discipline as an outlet for young people to get to know themselves, for self-reflection, for building self-awareness, and my job is just to make the kids’ idea machines,” Gamboa said. “I want to get them so comfortable with being creative, authentic and original so they just start problem-solving. Each opportunity leads to another opportunity, which leads to another opportunity.”

Gamboa said that the design of the mural came together over time. Initially, the students had lots of ideas about what the mural would look like. The final design features puzzle pieces that come together to form a person. It includes the slogan, “Piece by Piece,” and is intended to show how involving everyone in the community is essential to bring the community together.

Gabriela Vaca, HEAL’s youth engagement manager, started working to get the mural project underway in 2020 just before the pandemic hit. HEAL works with students to assure a welcoming community and Vaca said the message behind the mural is meant to reflect that value.

“We all are needed to make a thriving, beautiful community,” Vaca said. “Our goal is to remind the young people – as they are right now, flaws and all the things they don’t like about themselves – that they are sacred.”

Vaca added that the effort to design the mural began with focus groups at VUSD schools.

“We would ask the students, ‘How would you express feeling safe, seen, and heard?’ because the whole goal of the HEAL project is that we are youth-led,” she said. “So the youth were the ones who thought out these words and how to make this come together with a positive message where everyone belongs.”

Randy Villegas, a VUSD board member and professor at College of the Sequoias, was one of the early supporters of the mural project and is supportive of additional collaboration on programs to help bring art to young people. He highlighted how the graffiti art club led to vandalism disappearing from the school while providing the school administrators a way to prevent the student from being taken out of class.

“In addition to kids learning skills and how to create art, I think it demonstrates how investing in art can transform lives,” Villegas said.

After the years-long process of working toward getting the mural project approved, Vaca and Gamboa both said they felt shock in the moment after the city council voted unanimously to approve the art project. The coalition had previously been denied by the Visalia Mural Committee because the project didn’t meet the established guidelines. The committee has previously denied several other popular projects including the popular “Welcome to Visalia” mural located on Court Street. 

The mural is funded through a grant to the California Health Collaborative, the non-profit that administers HEAL. The project is fully funded and cost $37,000. Vaca said the goal is to have the mural finished by June of this year now that the collaboration of student artists and program operators have gotten the green light to go forward.

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