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.