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Mural project showcases Mendocino County’s diverse roots

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For more information, visit goddess.graphics online or, to make a donation, visit gofundme.com/f/e8uhy-ukiah-history-mural-fund.

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.

Learn more

For more information, visit goddess.graphics online or, to make a donation, visit gofundme.com/f/e8uhy-ukiah-history-mural-fund.

“Works of art, by necessity, exist within the marketplace so artists can support themselves, but they can also be extraordinary gifts beyond measure accessible to all — thanks to cultural institutions and grants for public art — and this mural reminds me of that,” Alyssum Wier, executive director of the Arts Council of Mendocino County, said in an email.

Sinnott worked three months on her extensive application. She wasn’t motivated by finances. With a budget of $11,000 (and premium house paint donated by the local Kelly Moore), the project was more about the opportunity to create a meaningful community narrative. While much is specific to the Ukiah Valley and the greater Mendocino County, it encompasses histories relevant to the entire Redwood Empire.

“It’s for the community. It’s also about the community,” Sinnott said. “It’s a good thing for community cohesion.”

Sinnott holds a bachelor’s degree in art/art history and French (double major); a bachelor of fine arts in painting; and a master’s in art history, all from Rice University. She served on the Point Arena City Council for 11 years, including three years as mayor. Through her business, Artgoddess Fine Art & Design, she’s done everything from private murals and paintings to business signs. Last month she was selected by the Arts Council of Mendocino County as the 2020 Arts Champion Awards honoree in the artist category.

Her varied experiences — including living in a converted school bus with her two young sons for a year after crossing the country to Point Arena — affirmed her college nickname: “The Rock.” She’s flexible and unflappable. “I’m pretty focused,” she said, “and not very perturbable.”

When she had to abandon painting during shelter-in-place mandates, she used the time to design and sew hundreds of face masks, many that she donated, and put together a webpage chronicling the mural project.

Something that’s been difficult to overcome is the surface of the mural wall. Although it’s a masonry building — a style Sinnott calls “simplified” Art Deco — it was covered with a rough, textured paint. “It turns brushes to nubs,” she said.

The wall was pressure washed and primed before she began painting, giving her as much of a workable canvas as possible. Passersby simply see a work of art that becomes more treasured as it nears completion.

“I’ve had people stop and cry,” Sinnott said, noting that specific scenes stir memories and touch emotions.

The project has been so rewarding, she’d enjoy creating similar murals. “It’s like I have a formula now,” she said. “I’d like to do this in other places.”

She has done substantial research online, pored over books like “An American Genocide,” and consulted with the Mendocino County Historical Society, something “very, very, very helpful.” Sinnott also read through a “fascinating” series of local history books published by the Ukiah Daily Journal.

“I’m pretty well-read and I love history … but it takes specific research,” she said. “Boy, do I know a lot now.”

She’s been careful to accurately share the region’s history, while remembering the mural is a public display for all ages to view. While honoring those lost in war, she chose to portray a woman mourning behind a fallen World War II corporal paratrooper’s grave site. The paintings meet at two panels, showing the interconnectedness of people and history.

In the “hospitality” panel showcasing Ukiah’s 1891 Palace Hotel, a Black man in a handsome suit looks out, perfectly welcome there. He’s the late Hal Perry, one of the first Black students to attend local schools during an era of segregation in the late 1940s – but not without opposition.

He later was a starter on the University of San Francisco Dons basketball team and went on to become a civil rights attorney. Portraying Perry within the posh hotel “is a way for me to right the wrong,” Sinnott said, recognizing racism within Ukiah’s then all-white community.

There are countless other stories, some deeply personal to the families who shared them. In one panel, an Andalusian horse rears majestically, free from the mistreatment of its onetime owner — part of a sorrowful history shared with Sinnott.

She plans to install metal etchings between the panels to help tell the many stories. Ross Liberty, owner of Factory Pipe in Ukiah, is working with Sinnott to create the metal plates.

As the project nears its fourth year, Sinnott is gratified by the process. “Maybe subconsciously I knew this would work out fine,” she said, “but it’s way more than I ever foresaw.”

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