Artists preparing the panels. Photo by Victoria Murray.
Artists preparing the panels. Photo by Victoria Murray.

In a month or so, a new mural will adorn the Youth Alliance’s building located on the corner of Fourth and San Benito streets in Hollister, a collaborative project between Youth Alliance and students at Esperanza Center under the leadership of artist Victoria Murray. The mural is funded in part by the California Arts Council Youth.

Murray is a two-time winner of an Arts Express Grant from the San Benito Arts Council, which is awarded yearly. The grant’s stated goal is to “increase artistic and cultural engagement, accessibility, equity, and diversity in San Benito County.”

While Murray had initially planned to use the grant to hold in-person community art workshops, the pandemic changed her plans.

“I had to figure out something to do that would engage the community,” she said. “But I had to figure out how to do it in a safe way and still have something to show for it.”

Her initial idea was to meet online with students from the Esperanza Center to design a mural for the side of their building that would be roughly 8.5 feet high and 10 feet long. 

After a few Zoom meetings, Murray and the students came up with a design, only to find that the building’s owners did not want a mural, which brought the project to a halt.

Murray reached out to Youth Alliance CEO Diane Ortiz, who agreed to allow the mural to be installed on its wall and arranged for Murray to pitch the project to the groups that meet there.

The Youth Alliance building’s larger wall space allowed Murray to bring in more youths to contribute to the design.

“The Youth Alliance has several different groups that meet after school or through support programs,” Murray said. “We were able to invite all of the youths that meet through them to bring in their ideas too. We had more space to work with, so it has tripled in size to 8.5 feet high and 32 feet long. We kept the original design, but the new group was able to add another two-thirds to it.”

There were five weekly, online conferences with the young artists to consider what additional elements would work in the finished design. Held on Saturdays, they involved an average of 20 participants ranging from 11 to 18 years old.

“We wanted anyone who felt like they wanted to share their voice to come and participate,” Murray said. “We started by going over the original design so that everyone understood it, and then we would brainstorm with the kids to get them thinking about what they could add to the mural and what kind of message it should have.”

The Zoom conferences were an open discussion, with active participation from the young artists.

“We talked about all the things that are important to us,” said 15-year-old Marissa Samotis. “The teachers really tried to make everyone feel like they were being heard and no idea was too small. They had the center design that they did with the people at the Esperanza Center, but they expanded it around the edges, and we all got to incorporate our own symbols.”

The mural’s overall theme is transformation and awareness of the environment. The artists discussed the movement from childhood to adulthood and how the pandemic has impacted their lives and perceptions. 

Partly colored preliminary design. Courtesy of Victoria Murray.
Partly colored preliminary design. Courtesy of Victoria Murray.

“There are a few symbols that they wanted to introduce to represent the variety of life,” Murray said. “There are various plants and animals, but they felt it was important also to represent different types of people. They really wanted to make sure that all people from all walks of life could relate to the mural. They wanted to emphasize that sometimes we all need each other and that it is OK for us to lean on each other when we need help.”

Sixteen-year-old Kayla Ferry heard about the project from her sister, who had heard about it in one of her art classes.
“I have never collaborated with anyone before,” Ferry said, “but they screen-shared a rough draft of the mural and the instructors made sure they put in something from everyone’s suggestions. I think it looks really good, and I like how it all tied together and shows the diversity that we have in growing up and finding our way in life.”

Ferry got involved with modifying the drawings of deer already present in the design. “We suggested having flowers hanging from their antlers to give them a more whimsical look.” Other participants suggested animals such as bears and the inclusion of symbols of local Indigenous peoples.

With the design finished, the project has moved on to in-person weekend workshops at the Youth Alliance back parking area, where the artists learned how to prime the wood panels and lay out the lines of the design. The mural will be ready to hang once it has been fully colored, likely by the beginning of July.

Painting on panels allows the mural‘s preservation if the building owner wants to remove it. It also allows social distancing between the artists directly involved in the painting. Long-lasting acrylic paint will keep the mural fresh for decades.

As the work progresses, the artists are increasingly excited about the mural. 

“This has been a great chance to express myself as I work with the other people,” said 13-year-old Veronica Samotis. “We have put a lot of effort in creating this artwork, and I like how it expresses different ideas, like using butterflies to symbolize transformation. We all have those moments when we transform ourselves, and I think the mural expresses that.”

As for Murray, she is proud of how her artists have come together to create a mural in the middle of the pandemic.

“These kids have been great to work with,” Murray said. “They are incredibly artistic, wonderful youth, and I am excited that they feel they have had a big part in beautifying the community.”

BenitoLink is a nonprofit news website that reports on San Benito County. Our team is working around the clock during this time when accurate information is essential. It is expensive to produce local news and community support is what keeps the news flowing. Please consider supporting BenitoLink, San Benito County’s news.