Muralism of the Inland Empire

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

On the north side of the All-Seasons Hardware store in San Bernardino, winter is finished. It's icy and detailed, snow on the pine trees, so frosty that though it's almost 100 degrees on this October day, I feel a wonderful chill while looking at the wall.

The mural is being painted by two high school kids, according to Dave Kestler, who runs a sound and lighting business in the storefront. Right now, Lake Arrowhead is halfway done, the Virgen of Guadalupe rising in her customary dimpled halo above the blue water, and the mural trails off into what will be the mountain slopes of autumn.

I'm with Thomas McGovern, who hails from Brooklyn and has lived in San Bernardino since 2000. He teaches photography at Cal State San Bernardino, and for years has been preserving the beautiful, quirky and singular murals of this area through his photos. These painted walls aren't commissioned art, or essentially religious, though often there are icons involved. The murals are about letting people know what's for sale, what's to be had for joy or repair, what's going on inside the walls, and in the best way, this art makes a street come alive.

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Photograph by Thomas McGovernSome of the murals McGovern has photographed are gone now, painted over because of redevelopment or disappeared due to change of ownership. Sometimes the whole building has been demolished, and that makes his work even more iconic. Preserved forever because of his own art are Sonora Tires, on Foothill Boulevard just over the line in Rialto, and Irene's Market, on Fifth Street in San Bernardino, with the kneeling figure and accompanying lamb mirrored by a shadow which looks like an accidental Madonna.

On this hot morning, we walk along Highland Avenue, a long street full of the history of San Bernardino. (Old School Tires, another of my favorite McGovern-documented murals, was on this street.)

My mother had her first job in this city, for a savings and loan, and she brought us to the old White Front and Fedco stores on the weekends, as well as the Orange Show for the fair. This is old San Bernardino. The Star Brite Car Wash looks like a movie set from the Sixties. The date palms are not manicured here - they are shaggy with dry fronds and laden with garlands of tiny black dates, almost like rosaries, in front of the mural McGovern photographs today.

It's the Little Dragon Chinese Cantonese Restaurant. And the mural on the wall is like nothing I've ever seen. The faces and figures are arranged in attitudes as evocative as an Edward Hopper painting, but as we go closer to study the restaurant tables, even the mushrooms and noodles on the plates are in fine detail. What I love is that the patrons depicted at the tables are Latino, black, Asian, white, and in their poses, we can see arguments, dejection, elation and even a little gluttony displayed. Some plates are full, some are empty. The waitress in the center is turned, her shoulders ever hopeful, as if she expects a great tip.

Photograph by Thomas McGovern

McGovern directs a tour of more streets and murals, and his love for San Bernardino is like his love for his native Brooklyn - the preserved architecture, the wildness of painted art on walls, the way neighbors stick together on sidewalks. We visit a Catholic school with a ring of students painted on the wall, and then we measure the progress of Lake Arrowhead on the All-Seasons building, on Mountain View Street.

Photograph by Thomas McGovernThere is an arrowhead subtly painted into the mountains overlooking the placid lake, whose waters go from winter glacial to spring pastel to the deep sapphire blue of summer. Many business owners have told McGovern that part of the reason they want walls painted is to keep off graffiti, and others have painted their own walls to advertise their markets or clubs or auto repair shops.

But as we stand in front of this mural, it looks like the best part of public art - several men moving cars in the parking lot tell us the winter scene cools them off every time they look at it.

McGovern makes his rounds, catching the ephemeral and the permanent. Some of these photos were in his 2008 show "Vital Signs" at the Riverside Art Museum. But there are new murals every year, and the ever-present optimism that a small market or Speed Shop or tattoo parlor will thrive. Back on Highland, we stop to see an older portrait on a white wall of a tattoo shop - she is almost twenty feet tall, fierce, lush in figure, almost cartoon-like proportions and wild curly hair. Spray painted below the signature of the artist is his MySpace address - this one's been around for some time. And yet, just like the patrons of Little Dragon, she looks as if she could walk right off the cement blocks and down the street.

You can see more of McGovern's work at

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room." She teaches at UCRiverside. Read all her posts on KCET here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.


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