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Wide Open Walls: Meet the artists behind Sacramento’s newest iconic murals

·7 min read

Artists and muralists from across the world are leaving their paint strokes on Sacramento streets for the annual Wide Open Walls festival, which kicked off Sept. 9. On the side of storage rooms, brick walls, hidden corners of buildings and parking lots you can spot an artist creating yet another mural.

Among the 50 artists on this year’s festival roster are creators from Los Angeles, Miami, Mexico, Japan, Australia, Nepal and. of course, Sacramento. Meet some of the artists who are bringing buildings and alleyways in the greater Sacramento region to life with colorful contemporary musings, intricate portraits and abstract illustrations.

Ana Valentine

On a curved building at the University of California, Davis Cancer Center, less than two miles from her home, Ana Valentine laid down her sketches of tall irises, budding tulips and a daffodil.

Before claiming her canvas in the realm of contemporary botanical art, Valentine worked as a farmer at a young age but later decided to go to school to study neuroscience. “I was looking at too much mathematical equations and I felt like a part of my brain was dying,” she said.

The self-taught artist picked up painting as a way to balance her learning, funneling her inspiration from flowers that she grew on the central coast of California onto canvasses in her kitchen. Valentine has since pursued painting full-time, explaining that she would only go back to school if her education was completely funded.

Her first mural was for Wide Open Walls in 2020. Much like each of her projects, the creation — located at 2245 Stockton Blvd. — features over two dozen colors, florals and complex patterns. For this year’s mural at the Cancer Center, Valentine is painting blooming and withering flowers, propped up by birds.

“The birds are leading each other out of darkness, which is probably what it feels like to be very ill,” Valentine said, adding that the mural’s colors will reflect the dawn rising on the horizon as it transitions from dark blue to warm yellow.

When it comes to her designs, Valentine said she wants people to envision their own lives.

“None of them adhere to reality,” she said about her art. “They’re all surreal. I invent them from my imagination and by doing that, I want people to be able to come up with bigger ideas of their life.”

Ana Valentine’s “Withering Flowers Find Support” mural at the University of California, Davis Cancer Center for the Wide Open Walls festival 2021.
Ana Valentine’s “Withering Flowers Find Support” mural at the University of California, Davis Cancer Center for the Wide Open Walls festival 2021.

Joha Harrison

To prepare for his mural at 1236 C St., the day before the festival kickoff Joha Harrison took off the windows from the business he’ll be painting on. “I’m going to be really free with it,” he said over the phone, after deciding to take a 20-minute break to mull over what design he wants to create.

Born in Baton Rouge, La., Harrison’s footing in art began in elementary school. In the fifth grade, he submitted to Nike an abstract shoe design, reminiscent of a stained-glass window, with burgundy, orange, magenta and teal paint. After being asked to make a patent of his design at the age of 11 and in no rush to be a businessman, Harrison got into photography. With 20 years of capturing portraits and lifestyles under his belt, Harrison tapped into filmmaking, all while creating colorful abstract art that oftentimes reflects his original piece for Nike.

He said he wants to incorporate film and photography into his mural at Wide Open Walls, which will be his first mural art. Like his previous designs, Harrison plans to use muted colors with a splash of bright hues. And although the concept for the mural is still brewing, he said he wants people to use his art as a mirror.

“Basically, when they look at it, I want it to be able to speak to their subconscious and unlock things,” he said. He added that he might use his abstract aesthetic, which he said, gives a painting the ability to talk to each person and allows people to see something different.

Emily Ding

Like most artists, Emily Ding was introduced to the world of expression at a young age. At 4 years old, Ding learned ballet, while her mother took a watercolor painting class nearby. “I only went because I got a sticker at the end of every ballet class,” Ding said.

What truly entranced her was the paintings in her mother’s class — the still-lifes, flowers, fruits, teapots and vases. “I wanted to do that,” Ding said. “I wanted to be like her.”

The Houston-born artist has since been painting and drawing, with many of her creations portraying animal figures and flora through shapes and silhouettes. She said she likes to tell stories within her paintings, pulling inspiration from Aesop Fables — a collection of tales, such as the Tortoise and the Hare — that her father gave her when she was young. With her signature use of gradients and bold colors, Ding also adds flow and movement to her depiction of the natural world.

“I like to express human emotion and experience through animals,” she said. “They can personify so many human emotions and we can relate to animals, even though it’s not human.”

It wasn’t until college that Ding picked up a spray can for the first time and began painting large-scale walls and murals. “I thought it was so cool to paint something bigger than myself and to paint on a wall,” she said.

Ding’s murals can be seen across the globe in Bali, Shanghai, Texas, Nevada and California.

“[Murals] are a form of public art,” Ding said. “It’s different from hanging canvasses in a gallery where the audience is limited. Not everyone will go to a gallery. But for walls, it’s public art. It’s for the public, for people to enjoy.”

Her mural for Wide Open Walls, which will be at the Boys and Girls Club on G Street, will be her latest addition to her vast collection. But what will it entail? Ding said “no clue,” but for now, “animals for sure.”

Rigo

While artists were at their designated mural spaces for the first day of the festival, Rigo was at a high school in the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District, where he teaches art. “I’m balancing work and trying to do this mural also,” he said.

Painting murals is not something new for the Sacramento-based artist. Rigo has painted murals with his students and decorated a public utility box, located on 3rd Street and Capitol Avenue, for Capital Box Art. “But this is the biggest one I’m doing so far,” said Rigo. “I’m excited to do this.”

For Rigo, art goes beyond paints and brushes. With a degree in animation and illustration from San Jose State University, Rigo has created sculptures, 2D digital art and animation and has worked with Pixar, Warner Brothers and Nickelodeon.

“I don’t like myself to be boxed in within a style or medium,” the surrealist artist said. “That’s one of the things I passed down to my students.”

In his classes, Rigo said he teaches his students different techniques and art forms, hoping that they will discover something they like and pursue it.

For his mural, which will be on the side of a building at 1001 Del Paso Blvd, Rigo plans to paint a tribute to Frida Kahlo, the famed Mexican painter. The wall is covered in shades of black, blue-violet, light blue and pink to represent the galaxy merging with the Earth. He said he’ll be adding a portrait of Kahlo, as well as Aztec masks and hummingbirds — a symbol of reincarnation to Aztecs.

Born in Santa Clara, Rigo spent much of his childhood in Mexico, before moving to California when he was in middle school. Rigo said the mural will be representative of his culture and the Mexican community.

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