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Images That 'Bookmark' a Neighborhood

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This writing assignment is very late.

Almost a year ago, I was asked by my direct KCET Departures editor if I would write about some of my mural influences. Since my preference was to report on what others are doing in their work with murals, street art, and public art, I didn't jump on the assignment.

Now it's tougher not to since my work is on exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum. It is a visual sidebar to "More Dreamers of the Golden Dream," by KCET colleagues Susan Straight and Doug McCulloh.

They tell the stories of Riverside's Eastside, my pieces supplement that idea with stories about Casa Blanca, a 16-block barrio in a different part of town. My work comes from a previous project that uses mural composition in digital format from 2005 -- yes, the dreaded digital mural.

Bookmarks Leon Panel I Ed Fuentes

The project, titled "Bookmarks: People and Place in Public Space," is being revisited as fine art photography that brings "visual tales [that] inhabit a space in mainstream arts culture and a place in the larger narrative of Riverside, adding other storylines to 'More Dreamers of the Golden Dream'," writes curator Carolyn Schutten, a PhD candidate in Public History at University of Riverside. She first came across the works at the Casa Blanca Library in 2007, and we chatted about the work then. Earlier this year, she asked if they could be used for her entry in the RAM Student Curatorial Council pilot program. Of course, I said yes.

For the exhibition, Schutten wrote more:

Casa Blanca is a predominantly Mexican-American community that was established alongside the founding of Riverside. The barrio of Casa Blanca has existed since the 1880s, when Mexican citrus laborers began purchasing lots, forming a small community that remains tightly knit and very active socially and politically. In 2005, photographer, writer and Casa Blanca native, Ed Fuentes, undertook a public art project for the newly built Casa Blanca Learning Center. As a local, whose family has deep roots in Casa Blanca, he was able to gain access to the stories of the community, executing a massive intake of family photographs from local resident. He photographed families and neighbors in Casa Blanca as well as the school, churches, and abundant flora. Fuentes' "Bookmarks" series is an exercise in digital muralism, a collage of photographic images that are layered together to tell the many stories of this unique Mexican-American neighborhood.

Digital muralism here draws on the long tradition of muralism in Mexico and in Casa Blanca -- which has several compelling examples. Murals have long been a mechanism for telling the story of place, relating political stances and portraying the heroes of a community. In Fuentes' "Bookmarks," the photographic layers become the words and the tale. Intended as stand-alone visual texts, the images are woven together to create multiple storylines and portray several of the community's storytellers. These captivating digital murals are closely held inside the Casa Blanca library as part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

The concept behind the panels is that they can be displayed side-by-side or separately, which becomes a metaphor for those who make community. It's the act of residents who identify with a neighborhood and who work to maintain it is what creates a sense of place.

It's also another way to use the aesthetic fundamentals of Chicano/Latino art to voice the the underserved. In the neighborhood I was raised in, the dominant storyline is a dramatic conflict between gangs. It was prevalent during the 1970s when I was a teen and grabbed media attention, including The New Yorker and 60 Minutes. Much of that was centered on Fern Street, where I was raised.

The violence cannot be denied, but it's not the only story. There is the woman who married into a small grocery store and took over the business, and once had a small tortilla factory across the street that fed the city. There is the park supervisor who seemed to be as tall and malleable as the palm trees as he stood supervising the ball fields in modern Pachuco pose. Their story is rarely told.

Bookmarks Glen Panel I Ed Fuentes
Bookmarks Glen Panel

They are two of the subjects in the multi-panel piece, called "Bookmarks" since they measure where the neighborhood was at certain point, and to note a library which would also serve as digital learning center for all the surrounding neighborhoods.

In the panels, the composition is made of archived photos in the background, the subject in the middle, and the foreground spotted by flowers and plants. It's my impression of walking from my home at the end of Fern street to the old library as a child.

As a kid I looked closely at my street, which at the time lacked sidewalks or curbs, on my two-block walk to the library.

The street was a sentence to read. Mailbox addresses were hand-written. Houses with kids had front yards with loose toy parts and patches of stubborn grass on packed dirt. Yards owned by older people were kept as thick, lush carpets framed with flowers, and citrus trees that blossomed in spring. Order was kept by concrete walkways with names and hand prints dividing the green shag of grass.

At the library, I borrowed books on art, or whatever else I could find to pass the hot summer months, and I noticed there were not many stories about my kind of neighborhood.

An awareness of listening for stories also came while I watched murals being painted in the neighborhood around 1970 and '71, a direct influence to the art being created in the California farmlands. Al Kovar, who headed the Casa Blanca Home of Neighborly Service, a non-profit funded by the United Way, was active in social work and civil rights. He made frequent trips to the Central Valley and saw the start of a mural movement there. Kovar added a community mural project to his busy list and connected local artists to walls in the neighborhood. Most of the murals are still there, too stubborn to fade away completely.

Casa Blanca rose from the citrus groves and, based on Mexican-American's owning their own property, can be considered one of the oldest barrios in the West. The mural migration is also a poetic family link. My grandparents started raising their family as workers living on Tagus Ranch, 3 miles north of Tulare. Just as my father, a middle child of a full brood, was born there, my grandfather moved everyone to house he built on a lot in Casa Blanca, steps away from a cornfield. If not working the citrus fields of Riverside, Corona, and Redlands, some of my uncles made treks up north to work the fruit and cotton fields.

As for this work, which I started to develop after assisting SPARC on several projects, I was asked by the library organizers to send an idea after they learned I was doing personal work. While it's based in the tradition of murals, I looked at moving away from the broad novel-like storytelling and looked at the more modern prose of newspaper columnists to be the subtext for a rural story. (My nickname for "Bookmarks" was Prairie Home-Boy Companion.)

Even though I paint, I wanted to use photography to drive the images and signify the storytelling in short form journalism. I was also thinking at the time, as I watched the photography industry change, that photos will be a bigger part of our everyday lives. Those who would want to contribute to a community work, from adults to children, would be comfortable taking a snapshot. It would offer the chance to make a contribution more personal than painting an artist's idea.

I went to see the exhibition and liked the way the images were curated. They are in a walk-through that overlooks the courtyard of a building designed by the architect behind the Herald-Examiner Building and Hearst Castle, Julia Morgan. The locals of Casa Blanca are lingering in the hallway. And here I am, writing a column about them, on a site where I have been following the back story of Southern California murals and street art.

It's been an interesting walk around the block.

Photo study of former Casa Blanca elementary school 2000 I Photo: Ed Fuentes
Photo study of former Casa Blanca elementary school 2000 I Photo: Ed Fuentes
Mural on main entrance of former Casa Blanca Elementary School I Photo Ed Fuentes
Mural on main entrance of former Casa Blanca Elementary School I Photo Ed Fuentes
Mural on a handball court at Villegas Park in Casa Blanca.
Mural on a handball court at Villegas Park in Casa Blanca.
''More Dreamers of the Golden Dream'' at the Riverside Art Museum
''More Dreamers of the Golden Dream'' at the Riverside Art Museum
''More Dreamers of the Golden Dream'' at the Riverside Art Museum
''More Dreamers of the Golden Dream'' at the Riverside Art Museum

Top: Ed Fuentes, father of the author, studies his son's work June, 2013. "More Dreamers of the Golden Dream" runs at the Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave, through July 23.

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