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2002 – Francisco Letelier … “Becoming The Circle” Mural

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“Becoming the Circle” is the title of the new mural on the 130′ west wall of the Pioneer French Bakery at 5th Ave. and Rose Ave. Community-based artist Francisco Letelier conceived the project. “Since I’ve lived in Oakwood for about 15 years,” says Francisco, “I’ve wanted to do something in my own neighborhood.”

The mural celebrates life in Oakwood. Images, taken from real life, composites, photographs and experiences, weave a tale of the community fabric. As with most events in Venice, it wasn’t without its bit of controversy. Community input was received during several meetings held under the auspices of SPARC. “People who came to the community meetings in the beginning,” says Francisco, “were really ‘watch dog’ kind of people. They seemed to come with predisposed feelings.” A letter was written to the City Council stating concern that the mural was going to celebrate drugs and gang culture and portray gang violence. Specific objections were a sax player who was once a substance abuser and a young black man who may have been perceived in a negative way. “This is about celebrating the good things in people,” says Francisco, “and not delving into people’s challenges from the past … it’s a celebration of overcoming challenges.”

The background of the mural is as wonderful as the foreground images. “I wanted to capture the feelings that I get in this neighborhood. There’s a lot of green here. This place is called ‘Oakwood’. Why Oakwood? Did there used to be woods here or not? I uncovered a lot of things as I went along. People told me different stories. Someone said that, at one time, the Oakwood Recreation Center had a lot of trouble and the police started calling the whole neighborhood around it Oakwood. Some people resent the fact that this area is called Oakwood. We live in Venice; we don’t live in Oakwood. I want to show that we can make Oakwood whatever we decide to make it. It’s not an issue of where the name came from, but what are we going to do with the name. I want to celebrate nature.”

Historic Venice icons are also part of the background. There’s an old Venice streetlight similar to the one that is now in Francisco’s front yard. The Venice column was a suggestion from the Garacochea family. “Jack has a great love for these columns,” says Francisco. William Attaway created mosaic and tile pieces and ceramic fish. “I wanted to use a Venice artist,” says Francisco. “William is not only a Venice artist, but he is a Venice community member. He’s the perfect kind of person to say ‘hey, this neighborhood has artists in it’.”

The mural is divided into panels. The first section is based on Jack Garacochea’s recollection of standing on the balcony of the building as a five- year old and watching the Rose Ave. parade go by. If the scene reminds you of a Mardi Gras it’s because “it was the standard,” says Francisco. “At that time people all over America were trying to do Mardi Gras type parades.”

The second panel represents parades as a community-building tool. “That’s the way it works,” says Francisco, “in places where parades are long established like Pasadena. It’s not just a big event that you come and look at. It brings people together to work on a unifying goal.” A girl, who would be in a Brazilian samba group, is dressed in costume of carnivale. Didn’t we just have our own carnivale here in Venice? A stilt walker came out of the creative process. “We wanted some fun people,” says Francisco. Jack Garacochea’s memory of the Rose Ave. parade revived Francisco’s own memory of a parade he had seen in Belfast Ireland in 1998 after the peace resolution. “The parade was a big tool in conflict resolution between communities in Belfast,” he says. “It was an enormous event there because it brought people together from different places to work on one common thing.” A juggler he met at the parade is in the mural.

A small panel evokes a fondness for Francisco’s surroundings. Martin Yarborough is a musician who lives on Brooks Avenue. “I’ve admired and known him for a long time,” says Francisco. The window is based on one from the New Bethel Church on Brooks Ave. and 5th Ave. “I wanted to include them because I think one of the beautiful things about this neighborhood is that there are still small churches here,” he adds.

The next two panels are painted on canvas. This was done to accommodate the Garacochea family’s future plans to develop the site. Because the building is only several blocks from the beach, the west-facing wall would be an ideal location for an opening into the interior. The movable panels could then be integrated into another part of the building.

The first canvas depicts a variety of personages who are common neighborhood sights. Part is dedicated to men becoming fathers, which is meaningful to Francisco. Artist Greg Falk is seen with his surfboard. A boy playing a didgeridoo is based on a photograph of one of the boys from the Venice Dream Team. Martin works in the neighborhood. “He is a great jack-of-all trades,” says Francisco, “and a happy person.” In the middle, an elderly woman, taken from a post-civil war photograph, is holding a quilt. “I liked the idea of showing an older person who is benevolent and caring … a reminder of a neighbor of mine.”

The second canvas has more of a garden feeling. “I was thinking about the momentum that’s been building with the Gardens of Venice Tour,” say Francisco. “Venice really has small secret pockets of little oases.” He also wanted to capture “the calmer more meditative idea that there are people in this community who are involved in spiritual quests or journeys of some kind.” “Gold’s Gym is in Venice,” Francisco says. “That’s the mecca of body building. Do I want to paint a body builder? Not really.” Instead, he chose Nancy Kendall, who’s been a trainer at Gold’s for many years. She, like many people in her business, is expanding her focus and does a lot of stretching and yoga. “If I put Nancy in the mural, it definitely says to the rest of the yoga devotees that ‘we’re acknowledging you’. I think of her as an ambassador from Gold’s.”

The last panel is two composite people. The female image is showing mother energy. “She is not only pregnant with child,” says Francisco, “but pregnant with a future. In the future, more children will be born in this neighborhood.” The portrait of the young black man is based on someone Francisco had worked with when the boy was in trouble and then went on to graduate from college. “He overcame gang life. He was an intelligent, articulate kid who got through all those hurdles and was somehow able to arrive at personhood that didn’t include violence and drugs and had a future.” It was important for Francisco, personally, to include this young man. “I want to acknowledge the fact, not make a big deal about it, but acknowledge that on the corner where I live, in the past 5 years, there have been around 70 kids who have been shot. It’s a secret. It doesn’t come out in the news. It’s the kind of thing where you live there and see that children are dying. Isn’t it tragic that they are dying? Children killing children … don’t you think that’s part of our community, too? Not only do I want to acknowledge these poor children and their families, but I wanted to include a kid. He is looking onto the mural and looking at us. He’s saying ‘Reach your own conclusions but please take me into account. We are really here and this really happens.’ For those of us who live closer to the epicenter of all the violence that does occur, it’s crazy that there’s so much talk about Venice, but no talk about these children who are killed and how do we respond as a community.”