Muralista: José Ortíz Brings His Vision to the Walls of Salinas

by C. Kevin Smith

I’m standing beneath the 101 freeway in Salinas.  Cars and trucks rumble overhead. The sound of rubber tires rolling across the unseen pavement echoes like waves in the shadows of the underpass. Above, between the northbound and southbound lanes, a wide open space allows a thick shaft of sunlight to beat down on the street below, which has little traffic this weekday summer morning. 

Across the street I see a naked man. He’s removing a mask from his face. His arms point to several directions at once, to intersections, not just of roads or highways, but of the heart, of history. He is surrounded by other people, animals too, and figures who seem to be both animal and human—richly-colored mysterious characters, the sort found in dreams, in the myths and stories that explain who we are and how we came to be here.

The man is the central figure in a mural completed last year by Arturo Bolaños, one of several artists whose work over the last decade has energized the streets of Salinas and the city’s artistic community. This wealth of recent murals has turned Salinas into a kind of open-air gallery, one that challenges our assumptions. Art, we suppose, lives in museums, galleries or private homes. It typically bears the signature of a single artist, who, we imagine, works in solitude. And art is quite costly. Murals are none of these things. 

Like our earliest known examples of art, murals are expressive of a community’s social life and values. Whether on the side of a Laundromat or the wall of a cave (the very word "mural" comes from the old Latin word for wall—muralis), this public art has always been about more than mere decoration. 

As I explore one Salinas mural after another, I realize that these stirring paintings make up an important local art exhibit. A week later, wanting to develop a deeper understanding, I return, this time with Salinas artist José Ortíz. 

Ortíz is himself a muralist and an accomplished studio artist, whose work is showing this summer at the downtown branch of the Monterey Museum of Art. He is also the visual arts director at the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts, artist-in-residence with the Cultural Council of Monterey, and is well known for his innovative art workshops with children and the dramatic murals that have resulted from this work. 

We begin our tour driving east on East Alisal from Oldtown Salinas, fueled by the excellent coffee roasted and brewed at the Cherry Bean Coffeehouse, on Main. Alisal is the Spanish word for a grove of sycamore trees, which were formerly abundant in this area but were long ago replaced by businesses and homes. Yet even in this increasingly urban setting, the first mural we visit reminds us of the importance of the land to the communities that work and live here. “Semilla del Corazón” (Seed of the Heart), also by Bolaños, across from the King Klean Alisal Car Wash at East Alisal and Murphy, offers a stunning vision of farm laborers’ place in a cosmic family story of Father Sun, Grandmother Moon and Mother Earth, whose curves are also those of the fertile soil. Images of seeds of corn are woven throughout the mural, amidst the children toiling in the field, further illustrating the connections between the human family and the land. 

I ask Ortíz about a prominent barb-wire fence that straddles the mural’s central section. Is this an ominous image, a harsh barrier? Perhaps, Ortíz replies, but look how Mother Earth lies peacefully below both sides of the fence. The strength of the land, he says, is much greater than the temporary structures we would impose upon it. 

Murals may appear bound by the size or shape of the wall that is their canvas, yet they themselves shape the environment around them. A detached electrical box in front of the mural has been transformed by the same rich purple that dominates Bolaños’ painting. Indeed, the ideas and imagery of this mural radiate out from its wall, changing the way I see the weeds at its corners, the way I hear the train whistle in the distance. It all seems integrated somehow with the presence of his powerful men and women who work the land. 

We move on. The 500 block of East Alisal boasts several murals, notably what Ortíz calls "a collage of thoughts," by artists Jayne Cerna and Phillip Tabera, at 506 E. Alisal behind the Los Arcos del Alisal restaurant. Ortíz compares this mural to a mirror in which Hispanic-American people living in California can see the symbolic polarities of their lives: skyscrapers and pyramids, wild lilies and cultivated roses, a horse and a convertible. In the center glows a golden wheel marked with Mayan symbols, a unifying image that offers the promise of balance. 

We then arrive at a mural executed by Ortíz himself, entitled WIC, named for the Pearl Street Women, Infants & Children building, whose façade it graces. With its sunny band of smiling children looking out at clients of WIC, this mural beautifully illustrates Ortíz’s signature image, which he calls hijos del sol, or children of the sun. (Ortíz applies the term to all people, as he sees the common dependence on the sun as an example of our essential equality.) 

Ortíz designs his murals carefully, taking note of the particularities of each specific site; he often incorporates elements like windows, doorways, and grates into his murals’ imagery. In WIC, the painted children gather round the actual entrance to the building, appearing to welcome the women and children who come there. On the morning of our tour, fresh produce is being distributed by a local community health program; the fruits and vegetables, the green tent awnings, even the orange plastic chairs all become part of the artwork, filling the air with vibrant color. 

Ortíz’s sensitivity to color stems from his abiding passion for art, which began at the age of five. That, he says, was when he first saw a white sheet of paper; he still recalls the feeling of urgency associated with that piece of paper, the desire to create an image out of its blankness. 

Ortíz’s beginnings were not auspicious. Born in El Paso, Texas and raised in various Mexican border towns under difficult conditions, he says the memories of the hard work necessary for survival now shape his work. I ask him to tell me some of the themes of his paintings. “The basics,” he replies. “People, land, survival.” About the hardscrabble places of his childhood, he says, “Living on the border, you really get the feeling of not having one.” 

At age 11 he joined his mother, who had come to Salinas in search of work. A sixth-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary introduced Ortíz to paint and canvas. Some years later, poring over art books at the Steinbeck Library, he studied the frescoes of Michaelangelo and the murals of Diego Rivera. 

Now at the Alisal Fine Arts Center, Ortíz is the teacher himself, encouraging young people in Salinas to express their thoughts and feelings with imagery. He worries about what he calls the current crop of “microwave kids.” He tells his students, “It’s okay to play Nintendo, but what are you doing with your hands that has value?” 
At the exhibit of his work at the Monterey Museum of Art, he has included several painted altarpieces, done by his students. When a colleague asked him why he gave up exhibit space for work that wasn’t his own, he replied, "This is my work." 

Ortíz was born just as the tradition of mural painting was undergoing an explosive period of development. Earlier in the last century, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal provided funds for out-of-work painters to execute murals; many of these painters were inspired by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, whose murals are still justly celebrated today. Los Angeles soon became the mural capital of the nation, with many lobbies of banks, hotels, theaters, office buildings and insurance companies featuring grand, optimistic murals depicting fantasy images of leisure and prosperity. 

The urgently felt need for social change in the 1960s and 70s gave mural painting a new focus and new subjects. Now murals were about portraying real people undertaking real struggles to improve their communities. In Los Angeles in the 1970s, a specifically Chicano muralist tradition developed, providing visual and emotional strength to communities little-served by the arts. Neighborhoods were in effect turned into galleries, and murals became places where people found themselves articulating their values, their traditions, their anger and their dreams. It was a profoundly energetic time for art. 

The murals in Salinas today draw from the rich history of Los Angeles and Bay Area murals, while employing a truly local perspective. That means an emphasis on the importance of agriculture. After leaving WIC, we turn left on North Sanborn, where several murals with agricultural themes await us. One of the best, executed by Yermo Aranda, is on the side of a Walgreen’s at 575 N. Sanborn. Aranda’s mural shows scenes of a diverse people striving to succeed in this modern world so far from our common wilderness origins. The first time I visited this mural, I parked next to the Drive-Thru pharmacy; my car faced an open field, where a forlorn assortment of old rusting farm equipment lay abandoned. Nearby, shiny new cars sped up and down Sanborn. 

Heading back down Sanborn, we then turn right onto East Market, another important corridor for murals. From Market we turn left onto Center and park in the lot of the Taqueria Jalisco, where the low wall of the parking lot has been transformed into a sumptuous scroll of Mayan iconography. Across the street, a mural by Jesus León offers a surreal swirl of overlapping spheres of history: personal, local, national, and universal. With this mural, done in softer, more muted tones than those commonly found in mural paintings, the artist seems to ask the perennial question: Who am I? Its formally inventive design links figures such as John Steinbeck and George Washington to the movements of immigrants and the great patterns of nature. Its circular flow suggests that this story is not yet over. 

Driving along East Market, different kinds of murals come into view. At 669 E. Market, the front of Morelias’ “99-cent Store and Up” is decorated with whimsical images of items one might find inside. I find something joyous about these dancing blenders, umbrellas and laundry baskets. Across the street, at Young’s Market, a mural sponsored by the One Voice Murals Project depicts various scenes from California history. This summer, as in past years, many young people have participated in this popular project as a kind of summer employment. 

A wall at 607 E. Market, at Carr Street, hosts one of Ortíz’s favorite murals, Su Voto Es Su Voz (Your Vote Is Your Voice), by the team of Cerna and Tabera. Ortíz is deeply impressed by the subtle touches of artistry in their design. He rubs his fingers lightly along the curve of a figure’s face, points to the shape of an eye, then turns to me. “They are great artists,” he declares. 

Finally, we drive to the Amtrak station, turning off West Market onto Station Place, where the legend “Steamin’ to Streamin’: Over 125 Years of Rail Transport in Steinbeck Country” adorns the beautifully proportioned mural by Seaside artist Merlin Brown. The imagery in this mural recalls the handsome colors and designs of the brand labels that for years have decorated California produce-packing crates. 

Though this is the end of our tour route, Ortíz still has murals to show me, for most of his own murals are to be found not on the streets of Salinas but in the playgrounds of its elementary schools. Some of these murals, such as those at Sherwood and Laurelwood Elementary Schools, are not accessible to the general public. One truly magnificent mural can be viewed from the street, however, and if you wish to continue your tour, slightly off the beaten track, head north to Natividad Elementary School, at the corner of Modoc and Glacier, near Alvin Drive. Here you will find “Los Niños Cosmos,” one of Ortíz’s most dramatic achievements. 

For Ortíz, the mural process begins with a conversation, with listening. A mural at a school should reflect something of its character. “After all, when I am finished, the students and teachers have to live with it!” he says with a laugh. At Sherwood, for example, he asked the students for some of their favorite images. He was surprised to discover that a certain cartoon Tasmanian Devil was enjoying widespread popularity among the children, so he incorporated some of that character’s swirling energy into his final design. (A reduced version of these energetic figures can be seen at the museum, in Andole la bienvenida al a 2000.) 

At Natividad, the emphasis was to be on technology. Ortíz began by transforming a vent grate at the top of the wall into the computer chip from which the story of the mural emerges. Rows of children are themselves sources of light, reflecting Ortíz’s belief that technology only exists as a tool to enhance our own power. Some children are reading, others planting seeds, yet the formal similarities between the two represented activities illustrate the artist’s conviction that all kinds of work should be accorded equal respect and value. “Five hundred kids worked on this mural,” he tells me, shaking his head with a mixture of astonishment and pride. 

What strikes me most about the murals of Salinas, as we drive away from Natividad Elementary, is their connection to the space around them, to the architecture, and to the people who live and work and play there. Ortíz agrees. For him, fundamental to the understanding of murals is that they express a particular place and time.They are “expressive walls.” I ask Ortíz his opinion of graffiti. “It all depends on the relation to the site,” he says. “Art is about making something, expressing something, whereas some people only want to harm something. There is a difference between art and vandalism.” 

Because murals exist in time and space, exposed to the uncertainties of human and natural elements, they are more vulnerable than museum art, which curators and conservators strive mightily to protect from age and air. A building on which Ortíz painted one of his earliest murals was recently sold to a church, which elected to paint over his work. He finds that he still needs to avoid the street from which his mural has disappeared. 
This fall Ortíz plans on enjoying some time alone in his studio, painting more abstract works on canvas so he can privately develop some of the ideas his public murals have given him. “Every wall has been my teacher,” he says. His generosity with his time ensures that he is always busy designing murals and posters for local groups. Securing funding for his work is a constant issue, however, and he looks forward to simplifying his life so that he can explore new, more personal directions in his art. 

All murals tell stories; stories involve listening, and listening lies at the root of José Ortíz’s art, as it is indeed central to the complex dynamic of community murals. At the end of our time together, Ortíz tells me that he often recalls something his grandmother would say to him when he was a boy. “Listen to me with your eyes,” she would say, “and watch me with your ears.” To explore the world of murals is to open all of one’s senses to the world, and to see how art, work, and community can be understood to nurture the collective spirits of all individuals.

Originally published in the Monterey County Weekly (formerly Coast Weekly), November 9, 2001.  Reprinted by permission.