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Vital Signs: Revitalizing the Pulse of San Bernardino

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"Kol King Ice Cream," 2006 | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013
 "Kol King Ice Cream," 2006. | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013.

Not all that glitters is gold under the bright California sun, but there's still something to be said about the ever present, dust-like sparkle embedded within a worn and stained sidewalk.

Poet Juan Delgado and photographer Thomas McGovern explore the vibrant melding of Hispanic and Anglo-American cultures indigenous to San Bernardino County in their collaborative exhibition "Vital Signs", currently on view from April 19th through July 24th, 2014 at the Robert and Francis Fullerton Museum of Art in San Bernardino. A work seven years in the making, "Vital Signs" moves through the duo's stark, yet poignant documentation of the frequently overlooked hand painted signs and murals found within their home region, capturing everything from a barely discernible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to the frequently depicted Virgin of Guadalupe. With paintings and text that serve far beyond any base utilitarian need, the union of Delgado and McGovern's work conveys a perceptive understanding of the aesthetic created, and sometimes neglected, by the urban population, continually paying homage to the artistic vigilance indicative of a time before the market became so heavily saturated with ubiquitously low cost forms of advertising.

"Party Doll Lounge," 2007 | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013
"Party Doll Lounge," 2007. | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013.

"When I see these hand painted signs it reminds me of this transition, or disruption, that we're going through as a culture between the analog world and the digital world," McGovern says, "When I first looked at these and saw that they were handmade and unique paired with this yearning to both advertise a business and represent the community I was just very touched by that and started making pictures."

A resident of San Bernardino since 2000, Thomas McGovern, a photographer, writer, and professor at California State University of San Bernardino ultimately fell into his collaboration with close friend, poet and fellow CSUSB professor Juan Delgado through a mutual passion for their community. On maneuvering through the project, Delgado states that, "One of the things that I think we're always thinking about in the book and also in this collaboration is the invisibility of things that are beautiful. I think one of the things that I found to be most interesting for this is that it's the conversations that you have that are the most meaningful part of the journey." Preserving the ever lingering presence of dejected architecture as seen in photographic works such as McGovern's "Old School Tire Shop," 2007 and Delgado's "El Tigre Market," the documentation maintains an air of romantic nostalgia while mourning the gradual demise of a craft slowly being phased out by the digital age.

"El Burrito," 2006 | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013
"El Burrito," 2006. | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013.
"Old School Tire Shop," 2007 | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013
"Old School Tire Shop," 2007. | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013.

Commenting upon this phenomena, the intermingling of Juan Delgado's "Manuela," which Delgado has dedicated to his sister Ofelia, has been meticulously written upon a 10-foot wall by hand followed by a lightly smudged wash poised just beneath McGovern's "El Burrito," 2006. With a thin murky veil hovering just above the text, "Manuela's" vanishing Spanish to English verse, like the signs of so many vacant buildings, seems to be left as a reminder of generations come and gone. In a room separate from this, a video recording of "Manuela" being read in its English translation by Delgado and in Spanish by Ofelia brings a piercing wave of Delgado's poetry to life.

Utilizing the rich cultural fusion and traditions so indicative of the community of San Bernardino, both the landscape and the culture that is being reflected within their work is, according to McGovern, "Clearly evident through the signage. There's that sense of layering, too, and continually suggesting that aspect of the community's history." The ever-present gum stain, a lawn fenced in by barbed wire, and the lure of an appealing, albeit slightly off, mascot or logo are all cradled within the benevolent care of the Delgado and McGovern collaboration, consistently presenting a composition comprised of an endearing, gritty blend of a place the artists' are proud to call home.

"Virgin of Guadalupe," 2012 | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013
"Virgin of Guadalupe," 2012. | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013.

"I love this place, Juan loves this place, and I say that without any irony," says McGovern.

Embracing everything from a nail-laden telephone pole to a wildflower spurting out from a split in the concrete, perhaps the most enchanting facet in regards to Delgado and McGovern's "Vital Signs" is that while the poetry exists as an entity separate from the photographs they remain conjoined, birthed from a shared vision functioning as complimentary elements. With a reinvigorated perspective on a community that has otherwise endured its fair share of economic hardships, the proverbial warmth of a city rich in communal history falls back into our eyes like that of a beloved, yet worn lover.

"Pig," 2011 | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013
"Pig," 2011. | Photo: Courtesy of Thomas McGovern from "Vital Signs," 2013.


River Beds Widening
by Juan Delgado

The hush-hush was the wind's route,
a pass between two mountain ranges.
By foot, the hill people went to points inland.
Yucca was indispensable along the way.

For a new religion, others carved roads
then splintered in their work-strong faith
until their Moses called them back home.

The valley was snarled up in its groves.
The native roots were almost crowded out,
but the echo of water ran over a river bed,
and a hawk circled, whirling up dark clouds.

A Mexican fan palm, leaning like prophecy,
dwarfed a girl who dreamt of a downpour,
a desert flood, a wave of gathering debris.

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