Mural project showcases Mendocino County’s diverse roots
When Point Arena fine artist Lauren Sinnott spotted a notice in a local newspaper about a proposed public art project in downtown Ukiah, she knew she had to apply. Now three years into the massive project, it’s the “crown jewel” of her long career.
Her block-long historical narrative mural, “The Ukiah Valley: Past, Present and Future,” features 26 vertical panels depicting the Mendocino County region. Sinnott hopes to complete the final few panels by next summer, but knows better than to make predictions.
She’s been stalled along the way by smoky air from wildfires; shelter-in-place orders due to the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic; and cold, windy weather that numbs her fingers.
The triple-digit heat common to Ukiah, though, doesn’t faze her. “It’s a north wall so it’s perfect,” said Sinnott, 61. “You just wear big, blousy garments and you’re fine.”
Plus, she said, there’s always someone stopping by with water and refreshments. For an artist accustomed to working alone, engaging with the public is an added bonus. People share their stories, make suggestions, bring old photos and artifacts, pose for portraits and treat Sinnott like a neighbor, even bringing her fresh produce from their gardens.
Although she’d detailed a sketch before applying a single brush stroke, community input helps shape the chronological panels that follow themed “chapters” like “immigration,” “agriculture” and “excellence.”
“I’m not the only expert on Mendocino County,” she said. “It’s a thousand times better now than just with the sketch.”
Along with her artistic talents, Sinnott is a storyteller and historian. The mural begins with a “nature” scene long before humans lived in North America, with images of black bears, gray wolves, mountain lions, elk and blacktail deer. From there, she depicts the native Yuki, Pomo and related tribes as they gather food and, in later panels, endure as settlers disrupt their lives. Ultimately, “service,” “remembrance” and the double-paneled “our future together” will complete the mural.
“It’s like making a tapestry, or like quilting,” she said. “It’s so full of patterns and ornamentations.” The mural speaks to truth, including darker aspects of the region’s history. She believes everyone is “walking backward into the future” and shouldn’t do so “with your eyes shut.”
Each panel is a history lesson woven in detail with animals, people, nature, landscapes and buildings — painted in a soft color palette. Important crops from pears and grapes to marijuana and hops are highlighted.
Flowing swirls, curlicues and symbols add interest and movement to the towering mural. She calls her decorative patterns a “high (fully developed) ornamental realism.”
The mural is “overtaken with portraits of people and portraits of buildings,” Sinnott said. “It just makes it so much more meaningful.”
There are 97 portraits of people, alive and deceased, including many well known in Mendocino County. Two local dogs and two rescue wolves also posed for portraits, among many animals featured. A panel celebrating the wine industry showcases late pioneers Charlie Barra, Barney Fetzer and John Parducci.
Painted along West Church Street, the mural stretches along the side entrance wall of the Ukiah Valley Conference Center. The building is about 180 feet wide and 19 feet high, except for a western slope of 15 feet.
It’s a conversation piece and destination for locals and out-of-towners alike, who stop to see Sinnott’s progress. They’ve been there from the start, when she was high atop scaffolding painting across the panel tops, creating the soft blue skyline that meets picturesque hillsides.
People of all ages crane their necks or study images at eye level, often greeting the artist and offering approval. “It’s wonderful to have a sea of compliments around you,” she said.
Sinnott is typically working there from early May to mid-November, when the cold and rain prevent her from painting. She often puts in 10- and 12-hour days, sometimes working 16 to 18 days in a row. Rather than make the commute from her coastal home (the drive is at least 90 minutes one way), she stays with friends nearby or house-sits.
She never imagined the amount of public engagement the project would bring — something that’s provided ongoing inspiration.
The project was commissioned by the Arts Council of Mendocino County and is the first public art commission since the city of Ukiah adopted a Public Art Policy. Funding came from individual community donations, fiber artist Laura Fogg and a matching Local Impact Grant from the California Arts Council. Art Center Ukiah has championed the effort as well.