Op-Ed: City must step up to restore Ohlone Park mural

By Stephen Most

A playwright and documentary screenwriter, Stephen Most is a Berkeley resident and the author of 'River of Renewal, Myth and History in the Klamath Basin.'

Ohlone mural by Bill Newton
A section of the Ohlone Park mural. Photo: Bill Newton

Twenty years ago, the late Dona Spring, a City Council member, asked me to find an American Indian artist to paint a mural on the BART vent building in Ohlone Park. The building was a graffiti-covered eyesore, crying out for public art. The city, having recently changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, wanted to honor the Ohlones, who are native to this land.

In 1995, Jean LaMarr, a California Indian who lives in Susanville, painted the mural, incorporating images of Ohlones, including family photographs. Descendants of the original Bay Area residents expressed to her their fear that these images would be defaced. The annual application of anti-graffiti varnish covering the mural was intended to respond to that concern. Graffiti continues to deface the mural nonetheless, especially on the north side, which cannot be seen from the street.

In 1998, city funds became available for Jean LaMarr to repaint damaged portions of the mural. At that time a bronze plaque describing the mural was placed near the south face. On Indigenous People’s Day of that year, Ohlones from Watsonville danced and told stories beside the mural during a rededication ceremony.

Last year, the Civic Arts Commission appropriated $20,000 to repair the mural. That amount, however, was not enough to enable Jean LaMarr to come to Berkeley and do the work. It would have taken months; she would have had to pay rent, hire an assistant, pay for materials, etc. Instead, a young artist from Precita Eyes, a San Francisco group of muralists, did experimental work on the west face of the mural. The artist told me that anti-graffiti varnish had sealed in graffiti, and removing the varnish and the graffiti without harming the painting was problematic.

The artist worked on the mural for a short time; the experiment did not succeed. According to Maryann Merker of the Civic Arts Commission, the varnish has been sent to a lab in Los Angeles to see how to remove it without damaging the art.

In addition to this problem, a city maintenance worker waterblasted parts of the mural that do not have graffiti. “As a result,” observed Charles Siegel, who lives near Ohlone Park, “all the faces are faded, and the part of the west face that was recently restored is now streaked.”

To date, the City’s efforts to clean and restore the mural have been uncoordinated, inadequate, and unintentionally harmful. Having attended the last City Council meeting at which the great Berkeley filmmaker Les Blank was honored, I believe that it is time for the Council to honor the Ohlone people by properly restoring and protecting the work of art that depicts their presence here.

After hearing the Mayor speak about the city’s budgetary pressures, I know that an appropriation of funds that would make it possible for Jean LaMarr to spend months in Berkeley and repaint much, if not all, of the mural is a lot to ask of the Council. However, funding remains for the restoration in the Civic Arts Commission budget. It needs to be supplemented.

I recommend that the Council act in concert with Civic Arts and Parks, Recreation and Waterfront to get the job done. I ask that the City develop a coordinated plan to clean, restore, and protect the mural from now on and that we celebrate the restoration of the Ohlone Park Mural on, or before, Indigenous Peoples Day, 2015, its 20th anniversary.

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