UC Santa Barbara Class Project Creates Murals by the Sea


While Los Angeles grappled over murals, students at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), have been taking courses that lead to the Urban Art Workshop, a collaborative project between artist, students and property owner. Led by artist Ann Hefferman, a 1980 graduate of UCSB and known in the region for her chalk street drawings, students are giving the beach town an added visual identity in the form of public art. A current mural is about to be dedicated on September 30.

Compared to its proud turbulent history of student protest during the 1960s, or an even prouder reputation for being college party town, the passive murals on private property and multi-unit residences are calming agents for the community of Isla Vista, also known as I.V., which is home to the university.

The process may be something the big city to the south can learn from. Or at least introduce ideas that can be followed, if any other academic institution wants to test the mural waters.

The popular class has been taught by Ann Hefferman in two of the last three quarters, but limited enrollment has forced students to wait until next time its offered. The class evolves each time it is offered, according to Hefferman, who describes it as a "work in progress."

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Isla Vista Mural
Isla Vista Mural

To provide some insight into the process of creating the murals, Hefferman answered a few questions for Writing on the Wall:

Are murals-as-public-art presented to students as an extended tradition, or is it based on the current wave of street art?

I present from my background as a street painter (ephemeral chalk on asphalt), a daughter of an architect, and employee of a spatial data library. I try to convey how public spaces can influence social movement, mood, and behaviors. I emphasize some of the more temporal aspects of public art. I've not yet delved so much into the historical.

One of the preliminary exercises assigned the students is to research and present a public artist and talk about what appealed to them. The presentations were not limited to mural painting, as I encouraged them to look at installation work, as well as temporal works of Andy Goldsworthy, Magda Sayeg, Mona Caron, Tracy Lee Stum, etc.

Art and non-art majors work together to make murals happen in Isla Vista
Art and non-art majors work together to make murals happen in Isla Vista

Did the program get off the ground by property owners approaching the artists, or did students come up with the idea?

The program originated from the UCSB Campus Housing Office (CHO), from an idea of a student intern, Kathryn "Kat" Frazer. She had voiced concern over some of the long-standing murals in Isla Vista being painted over. Her idea was to preserve and revitalize the murals in I.V. and create new works. The CHO took this idea to the campus' UC Institute for Research in the Arts, and together they coordinated funding and promotion to develop an interdisciplinary course and find property owners in Isla Vista who were willing to endorse the project.


Is this Fine Art coursework, or did others, like non-art majors, shown an open door?

It's an Interdisciplinary Course, and offered to all UCSB students on a first-come, first-served basis. Interestingly, most of the students who enrolled are not art majors. These were students that were unable to get into art classes because of that.

Were the concepts and themes created in collaboration with property owners, or did artists come up with an idea and follow an approval process?

I can only speak to the last two projects. Yes, we definitely collaborated with the property owners. This was one of the most important pieces of the class. It gave the students some exposure to a client/artist relationship and the steps of presentation that are involved. The first one was more open. We were given some ideas and presented several different sketches of varying themes in class, which we discussed, then presented to the client who made the final decision. Then we polished and submitted again for final approval.

The second, which is the mural being presented on September 30, had more direction by the property owner. It was also an enormous space -- at least four times the size of the first. The property owners had a specific idea: an Isla Vista-centric version of Saul Steinberg's New Yorker magazine cover, "The View of the World from 9th Ave." Because we wanted to uphold the open philosophy of the class, allowing for creative input and original designs, we encouraged the client to be open to other ideas that might emerge from the students. We presented several different sketches and they chose the one that was closest to their idea.

Then the real fun began. Saul Steinberg's elegant and sophisticated pencil sketch was a challenge to design and then to render in paint, with 18 students of varying artistic styles and techniques.

As the daughter of an architect, were you tuned in the relationship of image to space before beginning with your first outdoor art?

Yes, I think mainly with regard to scale. My first mural was on a duplex apartment with a path running between the two buildings. I made the pieces coordinate, but they aren't continuous. It's something that has developed over time and awareness, but not always put into practice with works. Especially [with] commissioned pieces where the client has a specific idea, and I'm just doing what I'm asked.

As a street painter, I usually have complete artistic freedom, but I'm not one of the artists that create interactive, anamorphic drawings. Those are definitely popular and have shifted the focus of the Italian tradition onto another something completely different, imaginative, wonderful and fun.

But I am aware of balance when I construct a drawing that can be viewed from different points of view. A good example of this was a commemorative piece that married two folk tales with a shared sky. It told the story as you walked around it. This was a collaborative piece on for which I was a principal designer.

Madonnari 20th Anniversary street art in 2006
Madonnari 20th Anniversary street art in 2006

Client-driven commissions are a very diplomatic exercise in negotiation. I imagine that for a business or marketing major, that can be as educational as doing the art itself. Are the students as a whole exposed to the client/artist negotiation directly from the start? Or do you have a student serve as a lead artist?

I represented the class to the clients. There just wasn't enough time because the class met only once a week for 10 weeks. Several of those class times were dedicated to assignments, design and critiques, and in the background we were waiting for the clients to make decisions. As for meeting with clients it was difficult to match our class schedule to the clients' availability. Actual painting time was scheduled on an as-available basis. Some students were more available than others.

Kathryn 'Kat' Frazer, the Isla Vista mural instigator
Kathryn 'Kat' Frazer, the Isla Vista mural instigator

Is that an example of how the class is still evolving?

There are two stories here. In both classes, Fall 2012 and Spring 2013, the designs were peer-critiqued, the strongest ones were agreed upon, and digital files sent to the clients. Contracts were drawn up for each job. One of the challenges I faced was finding ways to make everyone feel like they owned a piece of the work, even if it wasn't their own design. Another was to try to keep my hands off the design as much as possible, to keep it theirs.

The first time I taught the class the client wanted art on the facade of the building that might subdue the party atmosphere of the apartment complex. Kat Frazer's design ended up being the chosen one, which was a nice turn since the concept of the class was hers in the first place. And although it was her design, the students got to colorize and embellish it in their own way. It was a great collaboration, and great camaraderie.

In this one, the client visited the site as we were working and asked us to make a change in the shape of the peacock's tail, which required some over painting and retouching.

The second one was the 80-footer. The design was more complex and there were several renditions of the initial sketch that had to be submitted for approval before the final design was approved. I had the class work on polishing existing sketches and submitting final artwork. There were a couple of stand out students on this project, in particular Alicia Crismali, whose preliminary sketch came closest to the client's specs and was used, in concept, to generate the final version. Then I ended up doing the to-scale schematic that could be transferred to the wall with a grid. The students were on board at each step, just not present at the meetings, nor with me at my drawing table in the late hours after work.

I had to take lead but I shared the process in class with the students. Most of the students in this Spring Quarter class were graduating seniors, so you can imagine how they became preoccupied with other priorities towards the end of the quarter.

For the business end of things, I was paid a stipend by the clients and the students were "paid" in units and grades. The University paid for the supplies.

Do you think this gives students awareness of the duties, burdens, responsibilities, joy, of public art?

One of the most rewarding things that I observe during the process of public art is audience response. The students in both cases got to hear and respond to the initial, puzzled, critical, or inquisitive comments, and as each piece developed the audience appreciation factor grew. This was especially true with the "View of the World From Isla Vista." It's on a side street that is passed mainly by pedestrians and bicyclists. It was interesting to watch people walk into the space and look at the detail, the humor, and listen to them comment, share stories. It generates conversation.

I tried to enforce respect of property, materials, even others' work, while working in a section. And my least favorite part of teaching was policing all of that -- it's like herding cats. But at the same time it was a gas seeing how much enjoyment and pride the students got out of being involved and working together. And they were proud. They own a piece of Isla Vista legacy now -- at least for the time being.


The official unveiling will be at 4 p.m. on Monday, September 30, 2013 at 909 Embarcadero del Mar. This project of the Urban Art Workshop is sponsored by the UCSB Community Housing Office (CHO), Isla Vista Arts, the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, and property owners Tim Werner and Richard Gilman.

Photos courtesy of Ann Hefferman. Murals by UCSB Urban Art Workshop.

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