Walls Stand Tall
Murals make city come alive
By Gary Delsohn
Phil Serna, a local politician known for straight talk, was up to no good. He had just lied to an old friend and lured him Downtown under false pretenses.
All was soon forgiven, however, because the Sacramento County supervisor brought his pal, local saxophone virtuoso Danny Sandoval, to 10th Street and Jazz Alley for the surprise of a lifetime.
Serna, who plays with Sandoval in the blues-flavored band UnSupervised, used some of his district’s discretionary public art funding to commission a sprawling mural of Sandoval in this year’s popular Wide Open Walls—aka WOW—mural-painting festival.
The meticulously painted portrait of one of the region’s most popular musicians was a precious gift for Sandoval. Gazing up at his likeness on a Downtown building bowled him over.
“This is a tremendous honor,” he said with a tear in his eye. “I’m flabbergasted. I’m speechless.”
Luckily for those around to witness the moment, Serna cajoled Sandoval to bring his saxophone. Sandoval sweetly serenaded the crowd.
This mural in the heart of Downtown was a gift to the people of Sacramento from Christian Garcia. He’s the talented and self-taught young Chico artist who spent the last three years volunteering at the WOW festival so he could check out the world-class muralists.
Now the 32-year-old is showcasing his skills in the signature Sacramento event.
“This is the first time I have done a portrait,” Garcia says. “I think I’ve kind of hit it on the mark. It looks like his picture. We’ve never met, but I hope he feels the same way.”
Sandoval did feel the same way. There was so much joy at his discovery and Serna’s generosity that—after a grim summer of virus positivity rates, economic hardship and deadly wildfires—this was a welcome moment of grace.
“Every time you walk by a wall with color and something beautiful like a representation of somebody’s ideas about art, it conveys a different message,” Garcia says. “It evokes a lot of emotion. It gives you a vibe and energy when you see it. People take ownership and pride in it.”
David Sobon, the festival’s irrepressible founder and CEO, exemplifies that pride. He’s a successful auctioneer for nonprofit organizations, so he’s good at getting people to write checks for a cause. Art is a cause for him.
Widely traveled and full of enthusiasm, Sobon got the idea for a mural festival a little more than five years ago. He started small. Within a few years, more than 400 artists from around the world were competing for a commission, with around 30 chosen each year by Sobon and a board of directors.
This year, with so many entertainment and civic events canceled, WOW persevered and scaled back. More than 20 international artists had to be “uninvited,” Sobon says. But rather than wait for better times, a decision was made to use local artists, scrap the travel and accommodations budget, and give Sacramento something to feel cheerful about.
WOW and its diverse artwork have added color and character to the city’s core. From the towering painting of Johnny Cash on L Street to my favorite, the formidable California Republic Bear on the side of Jalapeños restaurant in Midtown by local artist Raphael Delgado, the WOW festival is another rich example of our city’s pre-COVID renaissance.
It’s also a celebration of our diversity and eclectic personality. The murals have become a tourist attraction. How else to explain a glowing article last summer in the sometimes snooty San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “9 Must-See Murals in Downtown Sacramento”?
Waiting for Serna, Sandoval and other bandmates, Sobon sits in his pickup truck with the Wide Open Walls logo on its side. He watches the nimble Garcia spray paint on the once-boring brick wall.
“I can’t build a $40 million building or a $100 million stadium,” Sobon says while finishing a burrito. “But what our nonprofit can do is we can change what the city looks like. We can make the city we love a lot more lovable just by painting. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Gary Delsohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.