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Artists painting mural at navigation center for homeless were once homeless themselves

It's no surprise that the county's M Street Navigation Center is a rainbow of beige, tan, drab yellow and institutional green.

The 24-hour facility, which opened in May north of downtown Bakersfield, provides shelter beds, meals, laundry service and much more to homeless men and women who face significant barriers to finding permanent housing.

Vibrant colors and art were never part of the shelter's design.

Until now.

"Color does something to the human brain," said artist Sarah Nobles. "It can bring hopefulness and happiness."

It was a few minutes past 6 a.m. Wednesday as Nobles, 29, and fellow artist Julie Gonzalez, 25, crouched alongside an old adobe wall at the shelter. Using small paintbrushes, the pair added bright splashes of California poppy orange, sunflower yellow, sunrise red and meadow grass green to the center's outdoor space.

Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales commissioned the mural and hired the artists through Stewards, the local nonprofit he works for.

"As it happens, the two muralists both experienced homelessness while growing up," he said. "I didn't know that when I hired them."

That realization brought an extra layer of meaning and power to the project, he said.

Both artists are associated with Creative Crossings, a 501c3 nonprofit that specializes in community mural projects. Nobles is a co-founder. 

When she learned that Julie Gonzalez had experienced bouts of homelessness in her teens similar to hers, and that each one of them had stayed at the Bakersfield Homeless Center on East Truxtun Avenue, she knew they should partner-up for the new mural project.

"For me, it was a big deal," Nobles said. "I told her, 'Let's do this together.'"

Nobles was 12 or 13 when her family first went to the shelter. They would go back several times over the years.

"That was our reality," she said.

She recalled that the school bus used to pick her up right in front of the shelter.

"All the kids on the bus knew," she said. "As a child, you feel powerless."

Now, both women work full-time jobs, so they paint in the early morning or late at night. It's time-consuming, uncomfortable — yet so worth it.

"For me, it was kind of that moment," Nobles said. "I'm not taking from the system anymore, I'm giving back."

Gonzalez, her partner in paint, recalled how difficult it was for her mom to keep a roof over their heads.

"As a kid, I was very angry all the time," she said.

But as she works with Nobles bringing vibrant images of flowers, skies and the transformative symbolism of butterflies to the residents of the shelter, she began realizing how much it means to her — and how much it would have meant to her to see this mural as a child enduring life at a shelter.

"It would have made a big difference, visually," she said. "Facilities like this don't have a lot of artwork, a lot of color. They are very plain, very neutral.

"It's something I would have loved to see."

The M Street shelter is owned by the county, but operated by the Community Action Partnership of Kern. Sheila Shegos, a CAPK employee and the director of community development at the shelter, said Andrae Gonzales learned during a shelter tour that administrators there wanted local artists to bring their talents to the center for the benefit of both clients and employees.

She was thrilled when Gonzales acted on the suggestion.

"He took that information and ran with it," she said. "It's beautiful.

"When they go out there, it makes them happy," she said of the effect the mural is beginning to have on the shelter's clients. "When we go out there, it makes us happy."

The rainbow is changing on M Street. The colors are brighter now, and an artist's vision is adding verve and vibrancy to this place where lives are being changed for the better, and hopeful transformations are taking place.

"I've watched them from the beginning," said center resident John Guilfoil, 60, who said he's struggled for years with alcoholism.

"This was just a bare wall," he said. "Now look at it. It's really lovely."

Guilfoil has failed before, but hopes this time, some sort of transformation will take place.

"I'm working on it," he said.

Can a colorful mural inspire people?

Along with the concentrated help residents receive at the center, can the addition of art bring about change, be it ever so slight — or earthshakingly profound?

"This mural serves as a beacon of hope for all of us, and especially the people staying at the shelter," Gonzales said.

And in that vision, there is hope for a future that is yet to unfold.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.