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With a palette of bright, bold colors and designs inspired by Hispanic motifs, artist and designer Rico Martin has set out to improve the image and revitalize the economy of a Sonoma Valley community, one paint stroke after another. He’s midway through a transformative — and somewhat controversial — project along the busy two-mile commercial stretch of Highway 12 just north of Sonoma, in an area known as The Springs.

His festive yellows, oranges, pinks, purples, blues and greens are already drawing attention to an automotive shop, a neighborhood grocery store and a shared building housing a Mexican ice cream shop and a consignment store. The lively designs include the aluminum cut-outs resembling Mexican papel picado party banners at Armando’s Auto Center and bursts of colorful paletas (Mexican ice cream and juice bars) that seemingly dance across La Michoacana.

Martin, 60, considers his work to be more than just awakening tired facades with bright new paint. “I call it social architecture,” he said, benefiting the entire community by turning the buildings into works of art. It’s a concept that has percolated through his work for decades.

Martin, now a Forestville resident, was born in Chicago and grew up in a “high energy” family in Santa Clara and San Jose before the high-tech industry, before shopping centers replaced the orchards and open spaces he fondly remembers from early childhood.

“I saw what to me was a beautiful natural environment being shot to hell,” he said.

Drawn to art since he was 3 and with keen senses and a deep awareness of his surroundings, Martin took art classes in high school, earned a degree in sculpture from San Jose State and then studied conceptual art and design on a full scholarship at CalArts in Southern California.

With a newly earned master of fine arts and $700 in his pocket, Martin headed to New York to pursue his career and, while working in Manhattan and living in New Jersey in the mid-1980s, he and several friends established a three-day festival along three piers in Hoboken.

“Hoboken was considered the most depressed town in America at the time,” Martin said, “but that was also an opportunity. It kind of showed me if you place art in a so-called depressed area, wonderful things can happen.”

Despite his successes in New York, Martin had an epiphany of sorts at 29 and returned to the Bay Area a year later.

“I fell back in love with California,” he said. He moved to Sebastopol 15 years ago, then to Forestville this year with his 14-year-old daughter, Leilani. His identical twin brother Patrick Martin is nearby, a professional magician based in Marin.

Today Martin is a branding expert and designer with a broad resume that includes work as an art director for HBO and branding campaigns for Discovery Channel, Cinemax, Colombia Pictures and area wineries.

His work in The Springs, he says, is a culmination of his many talents, something that came about “quite organically” after becoming acquainted with the area while dating the owner of La Michoacana and transforming the interior of her shop to reflect her love of color.

Martin kept painting, eventually covering the exteriors of four businesses with plans to do four more in the large Hispanic community that, in the early 1900s, was a resort destination that drew trainloads of visitors to the area’s mineral hot springs. The goal now is to make modern travelers between Sonoma and Santa Rosa take notice, pull over, engage in conversation and open their wallets.

“I intentionally did this to wake up drivers going through this community,” he said. “It was an invisible zone. When you do something like this, they start engaging with the community and their neighbors.”

Martin walked back and forth along Highway 12 before starting his project to meet residents and shop owners, visit the local taco trucks and get a sense of the community, he said. “The one thing I love (most) about The Springs is the people. I’m inspired by Hispanic culture, but I do not try to mimic Hispanic culture.”

Rooftop chicken

Martin, who has Irish and Italian roots, has since traded his given name, Richard, for the nickname Rico given him by Hispanic friends. He’s now finishing a makeover at El Brinquito, with shades of rich red and golden paint and a whimsical 13-foot-wide rooftop chicken that calls attention to the market’s many piñatas and the chicken it barbecues on streetside grills.

By spring, Martin hopes to have completed his final three businesses, one a nail salon and spa that will feature a huge hand with colorful henna designs and six brightly painted fingernails, and has high hopes that what he refers to as “The Springs wONEder Project” will inspire other artists across the country and start a unique movement to transform other areas beaten by time.

He did not expect the controversy, however.

Critics have questioned whether his lively art is appropriate for Wine Country, especially the designs at La Michoacana and Plain Jane’s consignment shop. He responds by saying The Springs deserves its own identity because “the businesses have nothing to do with wine. They’re mom and pop shops.”

Critics also have complained about the lack of community input and design reviews for such dramatic transformations, especially since the businesses are financing their projects with county façade improvement loans backed by local tax dollars.

Critics on social media call the project “degrading,” “too gaudy” and “in bad taste,” some suggesting that Martin is turning the unincorporated communities of Boyes Hot Springs, El Verano, Fetters Hot Springs and Agua Caliente into a “little Mexico.”

Martin said there are no county rules governing the repainting of existing buildings, adding that he was hired by individual business owners and shared his ideas at several public meetings. He calls some of it mean-spirited and politically motivated.

Fans say his artwork is inviting and long overdue, far better than the dull neutrals common to the roadway traveled by some 30,000 drivers each day.

“I’ve done a lot of controversial pieces, but not at this scale,” Martin said. He’s known for creative work that includes designing stage shows, promotional events and, in 1995, the former Jukebox Saturday Night nightclub in San Francisco. It was a parody of a 1950s nightclub, complete with Ozzie and Harriet portraits and a mirror that put every reflection on the cover of Life magazine. The once-popular nightclub later became a strip club.

Fruits and vegetables

Martin’s first exterior renovation, at La Tienda Iniguez, features a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables painted across the façade of the neighborhood market known for its fresh produce.

Samari Iniguez, 23, is a clerk at the market owned by her parents and initially was surprised to learn there were negative comments about Martin’s work.

“It was just shocking in the beginning,” she said. “It was kind of sad, not just because it’s our building, but all the other buildings are really pretty. How cruel humanity can be over something so simple.”

A petition opposing the artwork gained several hundred signatures, with a counter petition garnering equal support. Up the highway, not far from the luxury Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, the owners of Lonesome Cowboy Ranch trading post and apparel shop are fans of Martin’s. Robert Barnhart and partner Sandi Miller painted their business façade a golden yellow with turquoise blue and barn-red accents five years ago, adding flower boxes, awnings and a life-sized James Dean cutout to welcome passersby.

They’re among those who are happy to see the transformation Martin is bringing to The Springs, and have attended several community meetings about Martin’s impact in The Springs.

“There aren’t as many mixed emotions as you think,” Barnhart said. “I’ve had a few that have mixed emotions about it, but the majority love it.”

The area also is getting a multi-million-dollar roadway improvement, including long-anticipated sidewalks and lighting, and several businesses have helped Martin stretch his budget by donating paint, helping with the work or offering discounts.

“I don’t take anything personally,” Martin said. “I don’t buy into the divisiveness, which is the opposite of what I’m all about. What I want to do is actually delight the eye. Once you have an idea behind the color, it lifts the eye and is totally positive.”

For more information, visit woneder.org or richimage.com.