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A large, piñata-like chicken sculpture installed in front of a Sonoma Valley meat market has rekindled the controversy over the highly colorful makeover of building facades north of Sonoma along busy Highway 12.

El Brinquito Market in Fetters Springs is known for its barbecue chicken and also has piñatas for sale, so why not combine both elements with a 9-foot tall, metal, multihued hen, perched on a framework of steel high above the sidewalk?

That was the thinking of artist Rico Martin, who is putting the finishing touches on a piece of art that might be described as whimsical and wonderful, or gaudy and gauche, depending on one’s point of view.

When the big chicken appeared about two weeks ago, it provoked a spate of comments on social media. Some called it “horrendous,” “creepy” and “puke-colored.”

But others said they loved seeing all the colors and expression coming into town. One woman wrote on Facebook that it reflects “that we are living in a diverse community.”

The reaction is similar to the reviews Martin has received since he began splashing vivid colors on several drab buildings last year in the melting pot of communities that make up Agua Caliente, Fetters Springs, Boyes Springs and El Verano.

The eye-popping colors, which some credit with helping spark a business revival, also created a cultural backlash of sorts against what some view as a garish designs and motifs derived from Mexico and other Latino countries. But defenders say some of the attacks smack of racism.

Teresita Fernandez, owner La Michoacana ice cream parlor, one the first businesses to be repainted, said some of the initial criticism came from a small group of detractors, including a few who said “go back to Mexico. They have those colors back in Mexico.”

Martin said he heard similar attacks. “Some were outright racist,” he said, recalling what he said he experienced. “ ‘We don’t want you.’ Or, basically, ‘Go home if you want these kinds of colors.’ ”

The controversy has symbolized the struggle of a community seeking at once to revitalize itself with ongoing upgrades to its streets and businesses while also finding a new identity in the face of demographic change. Once a historic destination resort on the edge of Sonoma, The Springs, as it’s now known, lost some of its luster over the decades, but endured as an affordable area for low-income residents and an increasing Latino population, now accounting for about half of the community’s roughly 15,000 inhabitants.

The Springs Community Alliance, a group of business owners and residents of the area, has stayed neutral on the subject.

“Some people feel strongly that it takes away the character of The Springs neighborhood and some feel just the opposite,” said Rich Lee, chairman of the alliance. “I think it’s fairly divided between people who think it’s great and people who can’t stand to look at it.”

Lee said the corridor’s new colors have brought attention and focus to The Springs in a good way, spurring attendance at the alliance’s monthly meetings. “It’s caused more conversation,” he said with people asking “what do we want (The Springs) to be and look like.”

The ruckus over the brightly painted businesses, which erupted last year with the makeover of a consignment shop and ice cream store, has even worked its way into the race for county supervisor, with 1st District incumbent Susan Gorin defending the taxpayer-supported facade improvement program and challenger Gina Cuclis criticizing how it was handled.

“In my 26 years in Boyes Hot Springs, I’ve never seen people so upset,” Cuclis said. “It’s not about the artwork. It’s how it came to be,” she said, adding that Martin, an artist from Sebastopol, unilaterally came up with a new identity for The Springs.

She was critical of how Gorin handled a meeting last year in which more than 200 people showed up to ask questions and express concerns or support for the paint program. Cuclis alleged the gathering was designed to shut down opposition and said Gorin should have run the meeting and not county staff.

Gorin said Cuclis was off base.

“Because she has not served as supervisor she doesn’t understand the role of supervisor,” Gorin said. “It’s not that I was a cheerleader saying this is what is best for the community.”

Gorin said it was her job to help business and building owners who wanted to access grants — essentially forgivable loans — to paint their buildings, which was done within the rules and with no design review required.

“It’s like painting your house, you can choose your own colors,” she said Wednesday of the county guidelines, which she said county staffers helped explain at the meeting. “A few people are not happy about the color palettes and design. I recognize that. It’s not about my taste. It’s about providing services to help business owners.”

And those owners say the attention-getting makeovers to their stores has increased the number of customers.

Janie Raymond, owner of the consignment shop Plain Jane’s Resale Emporium, said the new vibrant paint and design has been positive for her, spurring the biggest spike in her business in two decades, up 20 percent over one year.

At first, the blast of orange, poppy yellow, magenta, pinks and aqua blue with cut out silhouettes on the roof line drew a mix of positive and negative comments she said. But “now people are used to things. It seems not that big a deal.”

“Generally speaking, our business has improved every year. It’s never taken a jump like this,” she said. “We’ve gotten so many new customers from this.”

At night, she said her lighted business resembles a jewelry box. And during the day it stands out enough that it brings in people driving by. They even turn around to come back and check out the inside of her store.

“They say it’s very happy, cheerful and upbeat looking,” she said.

Gorin thinks most people like the new colors and she tends to favor them, too.

“I love the fact it’s colorful,” she said. “Friends and supporters drive through there and say ‘Wow, this is fun.’ ”

But also she said “I don’t think it’s appropriate that every single building have this very colorful facade. It would be too jarring.”

El Brinquitos’ big streetside grill and billowing barbecue smoke makes it hard to miss at the northern gateway to The Springs. But the store’s new red, orange and purple paint job, set off by the big, polychrome chicken with aqua wings, positively screams for attention.

“People stop more,” said Brinquitos owner David Iniguez of the new paint and chicken that went up a couple weeks ago. “ I think it will bring more customers.”

Martin said he gets mostly all plaudits from passers-by who see him working on the big chicken, honking and giving him a thumbs up, telling him they love the sculpture.

But he accepts there will be controversy.

“In the long run, there will always be people who don’t understand or like what you’re doing. Anything you do in public will always get trashed, especially with social media today. It’s so easy to sit in their armchair and off-the-cuff write something nasty,” he said.

Martin, a former HBO art director, who designed the Cinemax logo and worked for the Discovery Channel, said he is turning buildings into art objects.

The $15,000 grant he received from the county is going for paint, materials and permits on four buildings so far, but he said he is donating his time and also getting help from other artists and engineers.

Martin calls his artistic philosophy “social architecture ... creating joyful environments where art and color revitalizes the spirit and inspires people to come together and celebrate life.”

By creating multiple colorful pieces in an otherwise gray and rundown area, he said it causes the 30,000 daily drivers to take notice of a mostly Latino and “invisible” region.

“It’s created an area with energy and spirit and vibrancy. We’re creating an identity,” said Fernandez, the La Michoacana ice cream parlor owner.

Fernandez said the redesign was not necessarily permanent and shouldn’t sow long-term divisions, especially any rifts over ethnicity and race.

“At the end of the day, it’s created more positive than negative,” she said. “I want the community to come together to respect that people have different taste.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason @pressdemocrat.com.

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