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'Light up for art': Mural project aims to promote mental wellness

When it came to starting her latest mural, artist Minami Marina Perales knew color was going to make all the difference.

"When we got here, that wall was gray," Perales said of the 126-foot-long wall at California Living Museum. "With a mural, you can change an entire environment, hit it with color. Inviting colors can soften your day out. Cheery, wonderful colors — I kept that in mind."

Last week, Perales was putting the finishing touches on the piece full of California fauna and flora that she painted with fellow Creative Crossing Co-Create artist Christopher Perez.

Despite painting about seven hours a day for a month, the artist said she was happy to work in an environment where she would get to wake up the turkey vultures (the artists showed up early to beat the worst of the summer heat) and watch bears eat berries during a break.

"It doesn't feel like work, it feels like walking on sunshine. ... It feels like a dream. It's been a wonderful experience being here. I want to translate that joy and happiness into the mural."

That positivity is exactly what organizers had in mind for this mural, one of five planned to be completed by September for National Suicide Prevention and Recovery Month.

"Our two big months are May for mental health awareness and September for suicide prevention and substance abuse awareness," said Dr. Christina Rajlal, a psychologist at Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. "We have a lot of celebratory events."

Kern Behavioral Health has teamed with the artists of Creative Crossing for this project that will also see murals at the Bakersfield City School District office on Baker Street, the Mary K. Shell Mental Health Center on College Avenue, Dignity Health Memorial Hospital on 34th Street and Kern County Mental Health Administration office on 28th Street.

"It's really just a way for Kern Behavioral Health to remind and let the community know that we’re there for them and that their mental health matters," said Kern Behavioral Health spokesman Mitchall Patel.

This is just the latest collaboration between the art group and Kern Behavioral Health. Previous efforts included chalk murals in the Oleander neighborhood in May 2020 and the Art in the Park event this May at Panorama Park.

Along with beautiful art, the projects have aimed to bring the community together and offer a chance to open up a conversation about mental wellness, which may not be easy for some.

"There is this magic that happens, a self-reflection," Rajlal said of these outreach events. "It (the art) is whatever you pull out of it. We've seen people engage with the art and they come to us."

Volunteer Liz Lopez said she saw many parents and grandparents, many of whom spent more time with children during the pandemic, asking questions as well as men.

She said, "The artwork helped them relax. ... People were being more accepting and feeling it's OK to talk about it."

Sometimes the conversation begins while the work is still in progress. 

"It's just a blessing for me," Perez said of people coming to ask about the mural in progress. "You get feedback then you're having a deep conversation."

Perez, who has been with the art group since the beginning, said he enjoys engaging with the community.

"The upside to Creative Crossing is that people know we paint, some know they can come up and talk to us. We accept everybody. If they want to participate, once they tell me that then I say, 'You should be out here.' It takes a little time, a little patience, but we have it to teach."

Perales said the group has helped her come into her own as a full-time artist.

"Prior to Creative Crossing, I felt really isolated. I didn't know any other artists. ... (founders) Sarah (Nobles) and Kei (Deragon), they are very welcoming, wonderful people to be around."

Public art reaps benefits for both the artists and the viewers. 

Rajlal said, "The impact the art has had on our community is connection, building that village."

That has been the case with the mural at CALM, which has delighted visitors as well as zoo staff.

CALM director Meg Maitland said, "Mirami won the hearts of everyone when she incorporated our two cats in her design," referring to felines Cactus and Red, who wander the grounds. "They are very well treated out here."

Along with a turkey vulture, bears, mountain lions, quail, king snake, a couple of humans and a black widow spider, the mural features the two cats in a special place at one end near where the animals rest at night. A cutout in the wall, which staff members refer to as the "cat portal," that allows them to access both sides of the wall also has cat ears above it to symbolize its function.

Each mural in the collaboration will feature different Creative Crossing artists and a theme related to its location; for example, the next one at the BCSD office will focus on children and education.

"They will reflect the environment that the art and the person is in," Patel said.

All murals will be completed by September and a ribbon-cutting will be held each week that month. 

The project is off to a good start so far with the community and the creators. 

"We've had little kids just walk up and stand behind us," Perales said. "They ask, 'What are you doing?' They're curious. I show them the spray paints and the tips. Then they run off and say, 'Mom, I want to be a spray-painter!'

"To see them light up for art, it makes me really very happy."

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter: @realstefanidias.