Oakland muralist committed to painting people and their places
It took four years from start to finish for Daniel Galvez to complete his latest large-scale photorealist mural, “Mack Town Rising,” culminating with three months of steady nine-to-five painting at his studio in Oakland’s Dimond District.
“I didn’t set out to make art that just went into galleries that just a few people would see,” said Galvez, who’s worked on more than 40 large-scale murals in the course of his distinguished career. “Like portraits are a window into time and space, murals in particular give you an idea of what’s going on in the time and place.”
His recent commission for McClymonds High School is a nine-by-35-foot triumph for the artist whose murals occupy public spaces from coast to coast; a site-specific piece, once it’s dedicated in February of 2019, it will be in Oakland to stay.
“The murals reference people’s lives and where they live, so the art becomes part of the fabric of their lives,” said Galvez of some of his most-seen works, which include: “Carnaval” at the corner of 24th Street and South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, and two made with his sometimes collaborator, Jos Sances, “On The Right Track” at the Richmond BART/Amtrak/AC Transit Station and “Future Roads,” a tile mural at the 16th Street BART station.
Combining portraiture with the storytelling art of muralism, Galvez has continued through the years to perfect his painting technique, which combines black and white gesso sections to create focal points; the color segments are done in oil.
“I love the magic you can create with oil paint,” he said. It’s not the only time during the conversation that he refers to the magic of muralism.
“For me the magic on the path I took is, every project is a new beginning, a new topic, a new neighborhood, a new focus,” he said.
For the mural at McClymonds, Galvez collected photos and researched the school’s history as a learning institution and sports mecca (its football team is state champion for three years running). In addition to stellar alumni like basketball great Bill Russell, the central image of the mural is devoted to local heroes, people like activist and scholar Angela Davis and Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton. The artist also gathered feedback from students about what they’d like to see depicted on the walls of their high school.
“They wanted to see families and laughter,” said Galvez. “And girls sports along with the boys, so we included the girls basketball team.” Skateboarding, which has recently taken off at nearby DeFremery Park thanks in part to the advocacy of artist, teacher and community leader Keith “K-Dub” Williams, is also represented. The park itself is filled with Oakland history and it’s referenced through images, including its iconic oak tree and a nod to the Black Cowboy Association (which maintains the legacy of people of color who contributed to the settling of the American West, and uses the park as a gathering place before its annual parade). Other Oakland touchstones, like Lake Merritt and the town’s activist legacy — from the Black Power era through Black Lives Matter — all make it into the frame. And scrolling throughout the center of the mural is a ribbon of empowering short phrases (“You grow through what you go through,” “You can’t spell beautiful without ‘be’ and ‘u’”), penned by the students themselves.
“There is a large Yemense population at the school, so we also included girls in their usual shawls,” said Galvez.
“There are students graduating, another figuring out an engineering problem, and at the center on one of the computer monitors [depicted in the in the mural], is Katherine Johnson, one of the mathematicians who worked on the NASA program. She was featured in the movie ‘Hidden Figures.’”
The students didn’t necessarily think to include anyone making art in the piece, but that is the one thing Galvez insisted on painting.
“The artist represents open-mindedness and creativity,” he said.
As a teen raised by his mother in Sacramento alongside six siblings, Galvez didn’t receive an art education, though he knew what he wanted to do from a young age.
“My dad passed away when I was 14,” he said of his Mexican-American father, who drove a forklift for a living. “There were no artists in the family. My mom was from Mexico and had a second-grade education. She couldn’t help us with homework, but I admired her strength and she was positive about life. I just wanted to do art.”
Galvez was the first in his family to go to college. “I had no idea why or how I could be a public work artist,” he said, but in his first year at Pacific University in Oregon, he very quickly discovered a focus.
“I went to the museum in Portland and saw the work of Chuck Close and it mesmerized me,” he said of the photorealism style that inspired him. He also learned for the first time of the tradition of Mexico’s murals and of Los Tres Grandes: David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.
“I wanted to combine the philosophies of painted photorealism with the realistic quality in murals to create more powerful images of who I was as a Chicano, a Latino artist living in California,” explained Galvez. After transferring to and graduating from California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland and earning his masters at San Francisco State University, Galvez ultimately studied with two of the pop era’s pioneers of photorealism: Richard McLean (“meticulously painted horses,” he said) and Robert Bechtle (“neighborhoods, simple suburban stuff”). Neither teacher was forthcoming with technique nor did they provide anything like mentorship to the young artist.
“They played it very close to the chest,” he said.
He also came to admire the work of Wayne Thiebaud (“His colors were so lush”) and Mel Ramos (“Funny stuff on a grand scale, beautifully painted”), as well as John Wehrle. In particular, Galvez liked Wehrle’s wall piece, depicting the old Central Freeway intersecting with the natural world, installed behind the old de Young Museum. “He had great technique,” said Galvez. “It was the scale I wanted to do.”
Galvez’s very first public work was on a 15-by-76-foot floor wall in Berkeley, an image of a 3-D diesel truck titled “La Raza.”
“It carried a trailer but then on the trailer was a mural. It was a mural within a mural,” explained Galvez of the mural’s story drawn from mythology to fieldwork. “The truck could pull off the vacant lot and carry the message of La Raza.”
The “La Raza” mural has since vanished from its corner but, Galvez shrugged, “It’s the nature of the work. It’s out of my hands.”
His epic mural of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, for which he won a national competition in the ‘90s, is currently inaccessible. Depicting the revolutionary life of Malcolm X, the site-specific work was created to be a permanent installation in the very building where the civil rights leader was assassinated. But since the mural’s dedication in 1997, the community center has fallen in and out of usage and is presently closed.
“I’m proud of that one,” said Galvez of the 12-by-66-foot canvas mural (he has a photograph of the work on display in his living room). His nine-by-20-foot paintings for the U.S. Department of the Interior, titled “Stewards of the Future” and “Guardians of the Past,” was another historic national commission and is on view in Washington D.C. Still other murals by Galvez here in the Bay Area and afar continue to be created and restored.
Simultaneous to the creation of the McClymonds mural, Galvez restored his piece in homage to the diversity and creativity of Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the wall of the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub. And his “Carnaval” mural, above the House of Brakes in San Francisco, originally painted in 1983, based on images by photojournalist, Lou Dematteis, was restored in 2014. Other large-scale works can be seen locally, from the East Bay at the African American Museum and Library and at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro, to Skyline College in San Bruno where he and Sances created a stainless steel and tile wall treatment.
“Some artists focus on causes or political struggles,” said Galvez. “Every artist carries their own views. The wonderful magic of murals is you can cover the whole spectrum.”
After four years of steady mural work, Galvez says he’ll next be working on a few portraits and little else for the time being.
“I’m taking a break,” he said.
The finished installation of a new mural “Mack Town Rising” created by an Oakland muralist Daniel Galvez, can be seen on the wall at McClymonds High School library in Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Video by @TheAperturist Ekevara Kitpowsong/Current SF)
Oakland muralist Daniel Galvez installs one of the canvases which is a part of his new mural “Mack Town Rising” on a wall at McClymonds High School library on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. A painting of Stanford University’s Hoover Tower in black & white with blue sky can be seen on the canvas. (Video by @TheAperturist Ekevara Kitpowsong/Current SF)
Oakland muralist Daniel Galvez prepares a wall inside the library at McClymonds High School before installing his new mural “Mack Town Rising” on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (Video by @TheAperturist Ekevara Kitpowsong/Current SF)
Oakland muralist Daniel Galvez and a wallpaper installer from Portland John Jennings install a canvas with a painting of an Oak tree on a wall at McClymonds High School library, as part of the installation of Galvez’s new mural “Mack Town Rising” on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Oakland, Calif.
(Video by @TheAperturist Ekevara Kitpowsong/Current SF)The following two tabs change content below.Contributing WriterDenise Sullivan is an author, culture worker, editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” and the SF Lives columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com, and on Twitter and Instagram @4DeniseSullivan