On one fall morning under a comfortably warm sun, Barstow's town historian Steve Smith adjusted his khaki safari hat, flipped through his used index cards filled with notes, then called to a small herd of locals. It was time for the second half of a tour that had him leading guests around the murals that splice through town along Historic Route 66.
The works are a contrast to the urban art that reveals the culture of big city neighborhoods; they were created to help preserve the town.
Call it the rural mural movement.
In California towns like Barstow, Twentynine Palms, Lompoc, Indio, and Lindsey, provincial stories are painted on walls for people who may be driving through. Organizers hope some will stop and look around. On this tour, everyone was from Barstow, and even they were surprised to hear about their city's history.
"I didn't know a lot about the Indian tribes from the area, or even the fake front of that building, and how it was historical," said Carolyn Fender, who lived in the town since 1969. "And I always see the murals. I drive by them everyday."
That shows why Kevin Bruce, author of "Large Art in Small Places: Discovering the California Mural Towns," calls the small town rediscovery a point of civic pride. The art is used to raise the legacy of their region's contributions to the growth of the state, when such small towns thrived during the economic divine of railroads, agriculture, or mining.
This segment of California's mural movement has a direct pedigree from the original art that influenced the ethnic urban works seen in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco: the rural Antonio Bernal's 1968 mural, on the wall of Teatro Campesino's building in Del Rey, California.
The Barstow tour doesn't have murals with social messages, but there is plenty of history. Smith stopped in front of a long piece, "The Mormon Trail: The Southern Route of the Mormon Trail," which shows the routes explored by Mormon leaders that, in time, brought the families to settle in Barstow, and later, San Bernardino. The mural, designed by Kathy Fierro, was commissioned by the Mormon Church, and completed with the help of church volunteers through Barstow's Main Street Mural sub-project, "Mural-in-a-day."
The murals have been carefully cared for, since they can fade from the desert heat. "The tour is also how I track the conditions of the murals," said Smith, as he walks past a freshly touched up mural about Barstow's Harvey House.
The town may be quiet, but their rural mural movement isn't. One new idea is a Route 66-themed piece that recalls all of the town's historic buildings in mythical placement, with cars from different periods cruising past, said Smith, who mentions other projects waiting to be painted, including a new mural by Kathy Fierro for East Main Street, which was approved by local city council on October 3.
"There are sixteen murals under the Main Street Mural program, with around thirty-two that are planned," says Steve Smith. "Not including any that someone else wants to plan and paint."
The final walking tour for 2013 is Saturday, December 7, at 10 a.m. The tour is free. Donations are accepted.
Top: Off Main Street, Barstow Skate Park highlights youth designed murals. This Main Street Mural Project was dedicated October 2010. Photo by Ed Fuentes