Heather Laganelli is an artist first and foremost. So when she had the chance to purchase the Locale Farm to Table Eatery building, she wasn’t just looking to the kitchen as her creative art form. She saw the building wall, facing the alley, as a canvas for opportunity.
Laganelli founded Mural Alley in April 2018 with the help of muralist Brandon Thompson, whom she met during an innovation lab hosted by the Hub of Bakersfield, of which she is a board member. They focus on tactical urbanism for public art. Through her acquaintance with Thompson, Laganelli met Deidre Hathor, who hosts a free community art class every other Saturday with Thompson, and there the mural project continued to flourish.
Their goal was to bring everyone together, whether they were novices or experienced artists, for art and creativity regardless of background or education, and for Laganelli to prove that Bakersfield was no different than any other city and that it had the potential to host recurring art installations for the community.
“My goal, whenever anyone is creating something on this wall, is to get people to stop and want to take a picture. To get people talking within our community, to create a buzz, to create exposure for the artists as well, and for people to feel good and proud of where they live,” Laganelli said.
It's a goal that Laganelli will be more than pleased to say has been accomplished, as the spot has been tagged online numerous times and has had many visitors use the colorful murals as a backdrop for Instagram posts or photoshoots by local artists.
That's something that local photographer Richard Forrester can attest to, having visited the spot for a photoshoot both before and after the recent murals were finished. He plans to take advantage of these murals artistically for their duration.
“I always check these murals out in the back, and these are so colorful, these are so amazing. I had to come out here and get some photos. I brought a model out and it was really awesome to kind of do that. It’s something that really brings some artistic value to Bakersfield,” Forrester said.
For Thompson and Hathor, the location and the availability of the art is what resonates the most. Having a space for the public with art from the people within the community was very important. That's why the idea of breaking down the space into four spaces for various murals where there usually would only be one, and having them be created by their students, was ideal.
Of course, with over 30 students participating, from a wide range of ages and occupations, some teachers, veterans, students and children, some coordination was needed.
“We had a series of group chats on Instagram to communicate, so we would just agree that ‘Hey, we’re all gonna meet here on this day,’ because they have kids, they have school and other things to take care of. So, we had some people that could only work on the weekends. That’s why we made sure to do Saturday and Sunday to get everyone incorporated,” Thompson said.
And incorporated they were. The group met together for the first time since completing the murals to talk about their experience and how much it positively impacted them. For the artists of the lion mural, “Focus,” the experience was both life-changing and eye-opening. Graphic designer Steven Shelby, art novice Val Macklemore and teachers Hilary Thompson, Christopher Chamberlain and Bree Gage all agreed that it was an experience that allowed for self-reflection and one that they would be more than thrilled to participate in again.
“I was doing some sketches, and once I started I kind of thought about the world right now and how we’ve got all this stuff going around us and we need to get back on focus. This was the first time I’ve ever done a piece this big, and I was happy to have a team with me to do it and to help make the application. I had multiple designs, but this was actually my first design, and the one that I really wanted, so I'm happy that we used this one,” Shelby said.
The piece was a first for most, but for Macklemore, the whole experience was unlike anything she had done before or thought herself capable of. Being new to art itself and having only experienced art-making in Thompson and Hathor’s class, it completely changed the way she saw herself.
“I had never, ever thought that I would even hang with it, I thought after the first day I was done, but it got better and better everyday and it was so mind-relaxing, I couldn’t believe how easy I could fall asleep (now). It was something that I think was missing, so I made sure to come back every day, once I knew I could get some sleep,” said Macklemore, laughing.
The group bonded over time, spending all their free time working on their mural, and at one point they even held a picnic on their spot in order to get to know each other better. The group likened their experience to a spiritual movement of their souls, and for teachers Chamberlain, Thompson and Gage, a good way to destress after a long day at work.
“It was an absolutely amazing experience, for like the three of us, it was our first time working on something like this on this large of a scale, and it was absolutely incredible, like life-changing,” Chamberlain said.
For Bakersfield High School teacher Thompson, taking part in the mural was a good way to reinvigorate her need to challenge herself and to try something new to help break the monotony of the day.
“I think for me, it put me in a position to challenge myself. I am a teacher and I’ve never done something like this before. It took teamwork, it took constructive criticism, it took reliability, and this is what we got and if you asked me to do it again, I would absolutely do it again, one hundred times to do it over again,” Thompson said.
It was moments like these and the artistic results that helped to justify this mural alley in the first place for Laganelli. She wanted to create a space where art could be a way of bringing people together, but to do it and sustain it, it costs money, $10,000 of which Laganelli has put forth from her own pocket, though she has received some donations here and there. Laganelli hopes that the rest of the community will see the positive effects that art can have for the community and in turn encourage others to donate in order to continue servicing public art.
“The benefit of having artwork outside versus inside is that anybody can view it for free, anyone can experience it at any time, day, or night. That’s why I think it’s important,” Laganelli said, ”(and why) we need a little bit more sponsorship to make that happen, I feel like there is a great value in it.”