The mural appearing on the side of the Bonanza Restaurant in Lone Pine, California looks like a series of postcards bought by visiting tourists on vacation. As artist Vin Leal continues to work on the 15-by-53-foot mural, the acrylic colors glow brilliantly in the desert sunlight of an unseasonably dry spring, now becoming the burning sun of summer.
Lone Pine is a very popular destination for summer visitors, boasting the grandeur of Mt. Whitney and the High Sierra as well as its recreational opportunities for fishing, hiking, biking or exploring the famous movie locations used in "Gunga Din," "Bad Day at Black Rock," "Iron Man," "Man of Steel" and "Django Unchained." Leal's "Social Media Mural" is now becoming a location for these visitors, many of whom are from urban locations.
This mural's origins began when restaurant owner Yolanda Balderas approached Leal. Leal proposed to pay for the mural himself if he could have total creative control with the promise that the mural would create a positive experience in the community and be relevant to Lone Pine. With that Balderas and Leal had a deal, one for which Leal was grateful. He described his work process as organic. "I allow room for the concept to evolve and change as the work progresses... Yolanda had confidence that I would do a great job and didn't require a proposal, which I loved."
Leal began the preliminary work of the mural by creating a mini campaign around the it by launching a free Facebook photo contest. In their February 26 issue, The Inyo Register reported that Leal was "looking for a few good photographs." "I want to encourage locals and visitors alike to have a fun social media experience... going through Facebook has the advantage of allowing everyone to see entries in their Facebook news feed by 'liking' my page." In a radio spot on 92.5 Sierra Wave radio, Leal explained that the chosen photos would appear in the new mural along with the photographer's name.
At first Leal's work appeared to be an attractive advertising mural featuring seven landscape paintings. He selected four photos from his Facebook contest entries, along with three of his own. The people of Lone Pine watched, fascinated as the mural took shape. One of the most noticeable paintings depicts sunflowers in front of the Eastern Sierras, from a photo by emerging Lone Pine photographer Jayme Williams.
Williams is rigid in his belief that the future of photographic expression will be locked into phones in ten years. Meanwhile, though Leal believes it's possible that phones may eventually take over the primary position in the world of photography, they will not replace the camera, he said. According to Leal, "there is room for technology old and new to coexist. The TV set didn't replace the radio, and some still enjoy shooting pictures with film." But both Williams and Leal celebrate the power that social media has as a platform for modern artists to have their work seen by potential fans from around the world.
When Leal began adding fonts and logos around each landscape panel, it became clear that he was depicting seven smart phone screen shots of various social media accounts from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. The screen shots are complete with user names, profile pictures, comments, and hashtags. The #socialmediamural is not just another nice looking mural, it's social media functional. By going to any one of Leal's social media addresses or hashtags included in the mural one can see the day-to-day progress he had made while painting the mural.
Many people began to think he had ruined the mural by adding the social media element, and asked, "why?" He answers, "The mural depicts today's people evolving with the times, engaging in the latest form of social interaction; it's the new branch of our collective experience working its way into new artistic expressions of our collective consciousness."
Leal further explains that he has chosen empty iconic landscapes because of the potential for an empty landscape to trigger memories, stir up interest, or cause one to appreciate the experience of the sight being seen parallel to the social media experience. "For those who do not understand social media... a conversation can arise from a shared visual experience whether experienced together or separately by each individual. Through both social media and the empty landscapes you have an experience without having to physically be there."
Leal has done several other projects in the town in the last few years. Collectively he calls his work in town his Urban Street-Art Project which "will become Vin's Urban Street-Art Experience when it is done," he said. Inspired by the enveloping experience of Earthwork art, Leal decided that Lone Pine was the right size town for his project. His aim is to enhance the Lone Pine experience by adding a unifying art element to the town. "Part of the appeal will be the contrast of having this tailor-made urban experience in this rural town," Leal said. While not his first and foremost intention, Leal's project has evolved into an experiment in creative place-making as well: using his artistry to create a sense of place and community.
Kathleen New, the Director of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, remembers when she first met Leal. "He came into my office to sign up for the Wild Wild West Marathon about 7 years ago and we visited. He was interesting and interested." She goes on to explain, "He has had an impact on the community through his art, and his attitudes about his art." He became a topic of conversation on an emotional level. The fact that he just went ahead and painted seemed to threaten some folks; mostly, however, people liked the surprise of his work just popping up.
"One of the issues was when he painted the bridges in the local park," New explained.
Spainhower Park is a county park and people took umbrage at the fact he didn't go through any channels, or committees of approval but just went guerrilla-street-art-style and painted. When the outcry became a little loud, he not only removed the offending artwork, but repainted and redecked one of the bridges voluntarily. When asked about it Leal said "my goal was to leave the bridges better than I found them. I did that but I also learned about the collective character of the town, which helped me with future projects. Now I refer to the experience as the Spainhower Bridge Show."
New continues, "He has participated in trying to make the community more beautiful and interesting. Today I have people coming into the courtyard of the Chamber of Commerce (containing several paintings on the walls by Leal) just to look at his work." The Chamber director remains a fan of Leal's work. She explains further, "I like to think public art communicates the spirit of the community. The community seems to be responding positively but are interested in the practical, i.e. 'Whose paying for it?' 'How much did it cost?'"
While Leal would like to devote full time to his art, he chooses to work with the L.A.D.W.P. so that he can properly fund his art career. At this point, control is more important than commissions as he aims to showcase his talent in the public arena and through social media. "When I'm not busy making art; I'm a Transmission Lineman for Los Angeles which I enjoy but it can be hard on the body. I've seen some beautiful sites traveling up and down the western states in my work truck and from the company helicopter. In the course of my job I have done some things that would get most people's blood flowing."
In 2013 Leal broke his shoulder blade in a riding accident on his Harley while coming down the Horseshoe Meadow Road switchbacks. Facing three months off of work he devoted that time rethinking his path as an artist and making art. Armed with a new entrepreneurial mind-set, he held his first street art show called "The Art of the Flyer." Leal enthusiastically explains, "I posted flyer sized prints of my artwork all over Lone Pine. The flyers were everywhere; I had over 100 images and also flyers explaining what the heck was going on. Anyway, I really enjoyed bringing my artwork into the world and into the eyes of others."
Honing his artistic-entrepreneurial practice he continued to find opportunities to bring his art to the public. Leal's work has many aspects with titles such as: "The Chamber Window Show," "The Storm," and "The Lone Pine Gallery Experience." He is leaving a pronounced sense of the artist's vision in signs, architectural decoration, and surprise images on walls, fences and utility fixtures. He even taught a summer art class to local kids through a Healthy Communities Program.
Reporter Charles James interviewed Leal in 2013 and wrote, "Leal thinks of himself first and foremost as a conceptual artist... Quoting Leal, 'You first develop a concept; the art medium is secondary and can be a drawing, an oil or acrylic, cut paper, or other medium.' On this particular evening Leal was offering a performance piece called 'The Storm.' By demonstrating the process that goes into a work of art, Leal hopes to further the understanding and appreciation of art in its many forms." "The Storm" can be viewed on Vincent Leal's Youtube channel.
Leal has many influences off the top of his head. When I spoke with him he mentioned Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Hockney, Banksy and Basquiat who he considers a conceptual expressionist. Although he is not too concerned with labels in thinking of himself, Leal told me as he did James that conceptualism is a pretty accurate to the kind of art he practices.
An unsigned article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, "First and foremost, conceptual art challenges our intuitions concerning the limits of what may count as art and what it is the artist does." The essay continues, "A characteristic way in which conceptual art explores the boundaries of the artwork is by a process of questioning where the realm of the artistic ends and that of utility begins."
Leal feels he has a spiritual side. "I consider myself a kind of anchorite right now, solitary for spiritual reasons but would like to build my social circle around my art career, a group of professional and talented people all pulling together and helping to advance each others careers in the process."
Expect more interesting things from this conceptual artist of the severely rural desert. His studio is full of all kinds of different media, experiments and projects in development. There are paper sculptures for one, hanging from the ceiling and turning and moving. Several series of paintings and other multi-media and cross platform ideas appear to be on the horizon for this small desert town.