Photo courtesy of Chuck Caplinger via Desert Art Studio.
In November 2014, muralists Chuck Caplinger and Art Mortimer dedicated a new mural in Twentynine Palms honoring the 20th Anniversary of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, according to Caplinger's website. "The mural honors the historic California Desert Protection Act (CDPA) of 1994, which enlarged and re-designated Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments as national parks, established the Mojave National Preserve, and designated 69 new BLM Wilderness Areas in the California Deserts Region." It's a new mural for the Marine town in the desert of San Bernardino County. They, like Barstow, California, and Elko, Nevada, use art to attract tourism. I call it the Rural Mural Movement.
This is an edited version of my KCET post about Twentynine Palms from March 2014.
Some desert cities in California attract tourism by painting their history on walls. It's a form of public art that has less to do with the mural traditions of urban Los Angeles. It comes from across the northern border.
Twentynine Palms' public art program that at first glance I thought had a direct pedigree to the murals in Central California. I would have to also give a nod to the Chemainus Mural Project in Vancouver Island, B.C., Canada. By painting well-crafted monumental works that focus on local history, the Canadian mural program is credited a factor in its economic recovery of Chemainus.
Karl Schutz authored the Chemainus movement, and has gone global with his teachings on how to seek walls, local stories, and funding for "first-class" artists to create a "Wow factor." When his Chemainus Mural Project was featured in a 1994 Smithsonian exhibition, the article was brought to the meeting of Twentynine Palms merchants, who were looking for ways to restore their own town.
"Twentynine Palms' [program] really had no shortcomings," said Schutz. "They did it by the book and, in some cases -- unveiling ceremonies [for example] -- better than Chemainus."
Murals number over 20, and the governing non-profit, The Action Council for 29 Palms, plan to mark the 20th Anniversary of their first mural, which was unceremoniously lost by development for a project that didn't get off the ground.
Unveiled on November 19, 1994, that first mural, "In Memorium," told the story of early homesteader Bill Keys, and its loss taught the town to make sure that anyone promising to open up a store, and need to demolish a building, are aware of importance of these murals to locals.
Over a cup of morning coffee, one Twentynine Palms mural program founder, Larry Briggs, quietly shook his head thinking of that lost piece, but perked up when he was asked if there were ideas in place for new works. Ray Kinsman, who helped pioneer the program, said they "learned a lot about east and west facing walls." Next to him was Wayne Winiecki, an artist who has helped keep the murals maintained with an energetic non-stop desert spirit.
Of course, sometimes it seems getting a mural up is the easy part. Now funding has to be sought to keep the current portfolio vivid, and to restore lighting on the walls so they work as nighttime markers for those traveling through town.
The town's murals, which include paintings by veterans Richard Wyatt, Art Mortimer, and John Pugh, are strong in craft, and conservative, as can be expected for a military town. Many of the early pieces were ritualistic on history of civic leaders. That may be of interest to travelers who explore region's history, but followers of murals in its contemporary form of street art may leave disappointed.
Meetings were being planned to discuss if new styles of murals should be sought after, according to Cynthia Truitt, Executive Director of Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce. As she said that, tourists from Vancouver Island, near Chemainus, walked in the chamber lobby looking for information on the murals.
What did they expect to be about, I asked. "Well, I think the [purpose of the] murals, that is to tell the story, the history of the town," said Eleanor Zimmerschied, in a playfully terse German accent.
Those visitors will enjoy Tim O'Connor's 1997 mural about Johnnie Hastie, the town's first source of public transportation, with his first bus made from a used 1928 Chevrolet truck. Or Richard Wyatt's 1996 piece on Bill and Elizabeth Crozier Campbell, who became homesteaders, and found artifacts that made their way to the Southwest Museum of Los Angeles.
How does she feel about contemporary street art? "Those modern ones? I'm not really for that," she said. "It just doesn't fit in."
Johnnie Hastie & The 29 Palms Stage" is the story of Hastie's being the source of public transportation and courier until he retired in 1973 with over seven million accident-free miles. The 13 by 32 foot mural by Tim O'Connor was dedicated February 15, 1997. Photo: Ed Fuentes.
"Grococcyx californianus" is the 60 by 15 foot mural of a desert roadrunner with a baby lizard in its mouth that greets you as you enter Twentynine Palms from the west. Painted by local artist Chuck Caplinger, it replaced a piece by Action29 that suffered some damage. This was commissioned by the operators of the Smoketree Building, and while the style is different, it has its own "wow" factor. The other side has a mature lizard, which so far has avoided being on a roadrunner's menu. Photo: Ed Fuentes.
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