Phillip Ray Orabuena saw the local memorials for San Benito County veterans who had served their country during World War I and II, Korea, and Vietnam: from Veterans Memorial Park to the plaques and bricks at the Veteran's Memorial Building downtown. But the artist and veteran of recent military conflicts wanted to find a way to honor the local soldiers who have served over the past two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A nondescript, blank retaining wall at the foot of Vista Park Hill on Third and Monterey streets seemed like a reasonable canvas for his vision, so he asked the local American Legion what they thought and they encouraged him to speak with Mayor Ignacio Velasquez, who directed him to Councilman Ray Friend. And the project began.
"Seeing that the Vet's Building lists World War II and Vietnam vets from Hollister gave me the idea to honor the veterans from my time, the conflicts we were in," said the Iraqi War veteran, who served in the military from 2003 to 2007. "I wanted something for them to see and enjoy, so it didn't happen after they passed."
With a monetary donation for materials from the American Legion Riders Chapter 69 and approval from the Hollister City Council in June, Orabuena finally got to work on the wall that he first thought of as an ideal mural venue back in 2007, when he worked for the City of Hollister. Through three weeks of prepping and painting, Orabuena and four others worked seven days a week, meeting up in the late afternoon and working until the sun went down. Orabuena sketched the imagery for the mural, which shows an aircraft carrier, a military plane and a soldier handing a child a ball "as a symbol of what we're supposed to be out there doing," he said.
"A lot of my artwork is political statements," he continued. "My opinion but not through words, through illustration. If I see something and it upsets me, I'll draw it out and make copies. I have a list of senators and other elected officials that I'll send a copy to. It's a form of therapy, I guess. It feels like you see how it is first-hand and they expect you to come back and just forget about it." He said he's "not trying to stir up any trouble, I'm just trying to expres myself."
His first sketch for the mural had to be redone after Velasquez encouraged Orabuena to make it more tasteful to the public eye. "I had some soldiers kneeling behind buildings with weapons and convoys with IED's (improvised explosive devices)," which he changed to less graphic imagery.
"As far as what it is and what it represents, I have mixed emotions about it," Orabuena said after completing the mural. "Iraq started getting out of control about halfway through the project" in June, which made him wonder whether the United States' military efforts there would be for naught. But as he reflects on the process it took to get the mural completed, he looks forward to other projects.
"I hope I can do more in the future at different locations," said Orabuena, who attended school in San Juan Bautista and Hollister while growing up. He attended San Benito, Watsonville and Anzar high schools before graduating from San Andreas Continuation High School in 2002 before shipping off to boot camp in 2003. It was during school that his love of art developed. Now, he realizes that through art, " there are so many things that can be done, where people can come to Hollister to see art on electrical boxes and walls. It's one small step to something that can be way bigger."
Orabuena said he planned to meet with Velasquez after the motorcycle rally to discuss a plan that Orabuena has for revitalizing Park Hill.
"It seems like it's deserted and surrendered to the transients," he said. "I drew up a plan for the whole park and an idea for it that can gain revenue and so people will want to go up there more," he said. "If it gets shot down, I'm going to move on to another location. I learned a lot on this (mural) project. I'm going to keep it going."
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