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Davis

Davis, California

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Artists install public, interactive art throughout Davis

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As Bill Maul painted Godzilla’s torso, standing on a ladder at the top of an outdoor stairwell leading to the roof of the F Street parking structure in downtown Davis, Alex Reisfar outlined the carnivorous pursuits of another less fictional dinosaur on the adjacent wall.

The collaboration, mixing the separate influences of two artists from different parts of the country, brought together two different styles of art sharing a theme to a public space.

The F Street garage, dubbed the “Art Garage” by its creators, is the latest experiment undertaken by art gallery owner John Natsoulas to paint the walls of Davis. Maul is the leader of the Davis mural team, which includes Resifar, from Portland, Ore.; Monto Kumagai, who documents most of the works and several other local artists.

The Art Garage is an expansion of the Transmedia Art Walk, which links together most of the publicly available art on the UC Davis campus and in the streets of downtown Davis, most of the latter being interactive.

“If you think of public art, it’s different than art that’s in a gallery,” Kumagai said. “If you ask people walking by, many people have ideas about art, and many of them think it’s very exclusive, [and have ideas of how] it should be or [that] it’s always been in museums.”

Using a smartphone, one can scan an RFID chip integrated into the sculpture or mural to see interviews with the artist and watch videos of the art’s installation. People can also leave comments which are linked to the artwork through social media.

“Because it’s public, it’s almost like saying we want your opinion about it. It doesn’t have to be positive, it can be negative, [or it can answer] ‘what do you think of this?’ In this way it’s a donation from the artists,” Kumagai said. “As people leave comments, that’s engagement, that’s participation. Because of the way social networks go, we can share that. So, as they engage, it becomes a story that can be shared locally and also globally, and that’s what makes a big difference. Then people can view this art in other parts of the country and the world. Then they start asking [why their city isn’t] putting in interactive art.”

Natsoulas and Kumagai have collaborated for years to develop an art scene that is unique to Davis. They claim it is the first transmedia art walk in the country, and Kumagai hopes that it can expand throughout the world, even as he attempts to keep up with the rapid local expansion.

He recorded the progress of the new dinosaur paintings by Maul and Reisfar, which are located on the southeast corner at the top floor of the garage above Regal Cinemas 6, across the street from the Natsoulas Gallery.

Natsoulas acquired the garage as a canvas for the community after much convincing.

“They were going to give a contractor $15,000 to prime the stairwell,” Natsoulas said. “The city and the theater didn’t have any money to give us to do any of the work, so we did the murals with the money for the paint to paint the stairwell.”

What followed was a mobilization of local artists to paint the stairwell and entryway of the garage. Natsoulas enlisted the help of Chris Wisnia, a local comic artist.

“Within the last year, [Natsoulas] contacted me and said, ‘We’ve got this garage now and I’ve been given free reign to do whatever I want artistically with it, so we’re putting up a giant mural that’s going to show kind of a history of all the arts in town and portray all the artists who’ve been in town and what they’ve done,’” Wisnia said. “…The stairwell [Natsoulas] was picturing [is] kind of like a time vortex that’s walking you through this history of the arts in Davis.”

The artists emphasized that each individual’s style contributed to the larger idea which sparked the garage’s murals.

“[Natsoulas] considers it a collaboration because he had this idea and said, ‘How would you handle this?’” Wisnia said. “I did that, and the muralists interpreted … how to fit it into that tiny space, but I feel like my [style] is in that. You can see it there.”

Wisnia had previously completed a drawing which depicted multiple sculptures in Davis as characters in a comic book within his favorite horror subgenre, giant monsters. Natsoulas purchased the drawing at an auction.

“I had the feeling that he appreciated that I put all that art into the piece and it reminded him how hard he’s worked to kind of change the town and make it something where there’s all this art around,” Wisnia said.

The recent movement of filling Davis with art began with the installation of sculptures throughout the city.

“[Natsoulas] was able to convince the artists to lend the sculptures. They weren’t purchased, and they were put on private property, so it really reduced the amount of red tape to get them installed,” Kumagai said. “We were trying to see whether or not, with a handful of sculptures, we could get some interest and public support, and eventually city support.”

Because several of the sculptures were loaned, they are not necessarily here to stay. Two out of the three sculptures featured in Wisnia’s drawing are no longer on display in Davis, including Finley Fryer’s “Stan the Submerging Man,” which previously towered over the Natsoulas Gallery last year.

“Because it’s gone, people have memories, and they talk about it. How big it was,” Kumagai said. “It might not be accurate, but it still makes it into a story.”

Ultimately, the sculptures generated a small portion of the buzz around public art. Maul said that people really began to notice when the murals started.

“I think it really turned around when the mural team organized and started, because that was much faster than putting in sculptures,” Kumagai said.

Maul painted the first mural by the Davis mural team in May 2012. Eleven more murals were painted that summer in spite of a complete cut to public art spending in the city budget.

“[Natsoulas] tried for years to get approval through the city to do things like this and didn’t get anywhere,” Maul said. “Then a couple years ago [in] 2011, they totally cut out any funding for public art.”

Natsoulas mentioned that most of the public art projects have been completed with very little money. Overall, Natsoulas said the value of the art amounts to a couple million dollars, without any cost to the city or university. Most of the project cost comes from supplies.

Although Maul commented that the physical scale of each mural (compared to the artists’ studio work) meant they should be worth tens of thousands of dollars, he conceded that they are a way to get the artists’ names out to the public.

“That’s kind of how we saw that first year doing our murals,” Maul said. “It was like putting up our resume for everyone. So if you want a mural, now you know who we are and what we can do.”

Natsoulas intends to continue the story of public art in Davis with the Art Garage. In March 2014, he invited the community to help with the largest mural in the garage. The event brought together over 200 contributors of all ages, skill levels and styles, an effort which won a Grassroots Initiative Award of Merit from the American Planning Association of California.

“It’s really interesting because there’s all this talent in this town, and the town is itching to do something, and nobody’s doing anything,” Natsoulas said. “So when we do a mural, and they all show up and want to help, it’s a really rewarding thing.”

The mural displays the history of art and culture in Davis, beginning in 1952, with Richard Nelson, to the present.

“It’s really a heritage thing that we’re trying to carry on. That’s what part of that community mural is about. There’s a long history of art and artists in Davis,” Maul said.

From that starting point, individual artists and muralists have added their own work to the walls of the garage. Wisnia has his own wall on the second floor, where he painted a giant monster, labeled the “bridge troll of the Davis overpass,” called “Bungoo.”

Natsoulas said it may take five years to complete the art garage fully, but he has plans to fill the entire structure. One of the artists’ hopes to attract other artists, professionals or amateurs who contribute to the Davis public art scene, as well as garner more support for public art.

“If you say that they can interact as part of the community, then I think they’re going to be more apt to protect it and support it,” Kumagai said. “You’re not just a passerby, but you’re part of this artistic experiment. Then maybe you might look at some of these things and get inspired, and then create something that fits into this network.”

 Photos by Amelia Evard. 

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