Until recently, the Fourth Street underpass that connects the new San Benito County Courthouse to the Hollister government buildings across the street could be a scary place. It was dark, smelly and you just never knew who, or what, you might run into down there.
That’s changing thanks to art that celebrates the history of the Fremont Elementary School that stood for years on the site where the new courthouse now resides.
“The Fremont Memorial Tunnel was conceived as part of our Activate Downtown Project,” said Jennifer Laine, executive director of the San Benito County Arts Council. “It was a one-year project funded by a grant from the California Arts Council called Creative California Communities; and with our Activate Downtown Project, the idea was to activate downtown space through some programs, new services and also to stimulate some specific sites.”
Laine said one of those sites chosen was the Fourth Street underpass.
“It’s been kind of dilapidated, so we decided to bring some color and life down here to make it more user-friendly as it connects the new courthouse with the existing government buildings, and to bring some history and memories from Fremont School,” she said. “This mural was a partnership between the San Benito County Arts Council and the Hollister Downtown Association. The Hollister Downtown Association was able to secure funding for prepping the space, for lighting and signage through a special government funding program. We were able to secure $5,000 in funding for the artists who come down here and do the mural.”
She explained that local mural artist Arturo Rosette was chosen as the lead artists for the tunnel mural.
“He is the chair of Fine Arts at Gavilan College, and has an excellent reputation as a muralist, so rather than put out a broad call we solicited a proposal directly from him that was then approved by the arts council and the Hollister Downtown Association,” Laine said.
Rosette has lived in Hollister for the 15 years and has been painting murals for the past 20 years.
“I started in LA creating public works of art collaboration with different gangs and communities,” he said. “I worked with the West Side Longos, the Pacific Islanders and the North Side Crips. We did a mural for one of their communities. It was probably the most challenging program I’ve ever done.”
He moved to Hollister in 2000, and began teaching at Gavilan College where he started the Art4Change mural program. “We go out and do different projects with elementary schools, high schools, and migrant camps,” he said.
Rosette said the original concept he was asked to design would artistically connect the new and old courthouses.
“Instead, I proposed that it be done on the Fremont School that was there,” he said. “As I did the research, I worked with the historical society and looked at a lot of images. I ran across one photograph that somebody took from inside the hallway of the school. That’s what I’ve mimicked here. This is as if you’re actually walking down the hallway. On the right you would see the arches and the hills and on the left are the classrooms.”
Also based on his research, he found several photographs of a large tree.
“It was a historic tree that, unfortunately, died when the school closed down and it wasn’t watered,” he said. “I found photographs of it and that silhouette is from one of the photographs.”
On the left wall there are also several silhouettes of children.
“The silhouettes are of actual children going to school, and inside the silhouettes will be their own memories of Fremont School,” he said as he pointed to one silhouette of a boy with writing on it. “That’s Roy’s (Roy Darr II). He was a student here and that’s why I wanted him to help with the mural project.”
Darr co-teaches with Rosette at Gavilan. As a former student at Fremont, he was the first given the opportunity to write his memories of attending the school on one of the silhouettes.
Rosette designed the mural and Darr painted it.
“After Arturo gave me his color study and blueprints, I laid the mural out on the wall and continued layer after layer of blocking in and painting it,” he said. “This wall is incredibly textured, which makes it a struggle to get the paint across it.”
Darr said the paint used on the mural is specifically designed for the outdoors and won’t fade for up to 80 years.
“When we’ve completed the painting we will be putting a clear coat over it, which will protect it from any kind of graffiti,” he said. “If anyone comes down and tags on it we can simply wipe it off, re-lacquer it and the mural will be safe.”
He said, historically, graffiti artists typically do not deface the murals.
“I’ve found in my experience over the last seven years that murals actually decrease the amount of graffiti in a town,” he said. “Most graffiti artists will respect it. I’m not talking about taggers, but those who have developed a character or style; some of them are even legitimate now and respect any art they see and seldom will damage it.”
Rosette said the mural is complete and new LED lighting will be installed next.
“It will be a lot brighter and we’ll adjust for the color,” he said. “Then we’re going to be working to see if the city will resurface the floor and clean out the drains. One of the problems we had was flooding. When we first started it rained a couple times and it flooded in here and was just nasty.”
Laine said the tunnel should be complete by the end of July.
“We’re going to do sort of a ribbon cutting launch in September as part of a new public art walking tour that we’re doing in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, the Hollister Downtown Association and the Arts Council,” she said. “We’re going to develop a map that people can easily download online and we’ll have printed copies, as well.”
She explained that the tunnel’s rejuvenation is because over the past year there were a number of new public art projects that were also in partnership with the City of Hollister.
“There are five newly-painted utility boxes,” she said. “So we’d like to do a celebration of those new public art pieces and this mural, and also include some of the existing art pieces in downtown Hollister.”
While she didn’t have an exact day in September yet, she said the plan is to gather at the south end of San Benito Street and walk through town as a group.
“We’ll look at the new utility box murals and then we’ll end up here near the new courthouse,” she said. “The underpass mural will be the final stop. We’re very excited to see a renaissance of art in downtown Hollister that hasn’t happened for a number of years and the partnerships have been really strong. To see the support of the Hollister Downtown Association and the City of Hollister, and the community, has been vital to this project and we hope to keep it going.”