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Saved by Art: Muralist Ricardo Mendoza

Los Angeles-based artist and designer Ricardo Mendoza remembers the life-changing eye injury he suffered while playing in a Little League baseball game when he was 15 years old. The diagnosis was a detached retina, an injury that could result in blindness.

Hospitalized and deprived of his vision for seven days, Mendoza would eventually recover and see again. But the budding young artist came home from the experience a changed person. It was as though the spirits of the universe were trying to tell him something, he says now. “I really kind of learned how to walk again.”

In many ways, the incident sealed his destiny for the arts. “I was in this dark tunnel, and it turned out to be a light.”

Today, Mendoza is a seasoned and prolific muralist, following in the tradition of the great Mexican muralists of the 20th century and the Chicano mural movements of California. Of Chicano and Salinan descent, his various works can be seen throughout the streetscapes of Los Angeles. “Art has been my savior,” says Mendoza.

Mendoza spoke by telephone from the site of his latest artwork, “Outposts of Wonder,” a mixed-media, sculptural mural located at the Monterey Park Bruggenmeyer Library. The mural, which Mendoza calls his strongest work yet, is an architectural celebration of the roots of knowledge featuring two large hands dropping and gathering seeds from heaven.

For his next work, Mendoza received a 2010 “Artistic Innovation: Through the Soul of an Artist” grant from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. The project, “Willie Boy Revisited,” is a large scale portable mural depicting the life of the fabled Chemehuevi tribal member popularly known as Willie Boy.

Willie Boy was charged with murdering his lover’s father, although accounts vary as to what actually happened before he escaped with her into the desert. But the 1909 California manhunt that ensued is often referred to as The West's Last Famous Manhunt (the phrase appears on Willie Boy's grave near the town of Landers). The story was also made into a 1969 film, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, starring Robert Blake as Willie Boy and Robert Redford as the sheriff tasked with tracking him down.

With this mural, Mendoza hopes to offer a sense of healing and closure to what he calls a tragic love story.

Healing is just one of the recurring themes to emerge from Mendoza’s work. Others are tolerance, education, ancestral memory, and the sacredness of the California geography.

“I’ve incorporated that into my work in different ways” Mendoza says.

In “L.A. Four Directions,” Mendoza’s artworks were installed in the bus shelters of L.A.'s notorious Alvarado corridor as part of a streetscape enhancement project. Mendoza sought to rekindle a sense of wonder among city dwellers for the natural world—the desert, oceans, and forests surrounding the urban communities of California.

“There’s definitely a social purpose and a healing component.”

Mendoza’s journey as an artist has been marked by numerous starts and stops. He would often go for long stretches of time during which artistic pursuits were absent from his life. “Being an artist was definitely not encouraged where I was growing up,” he says.

As a boy, he recalled playing with other children who told him he wasn’t an American. He was deeply hurt by such moments, which planted the seeds to questions he would come back to again in his life: “What’s my connection to this land? Where do I belong?”

Ironically, his longing to connect to the land arose from an alienating upbringing in the California suburb of Costa Mesa, an environment he described as unnatural, conservative and conventional, with an innate sense of order. “The structure did not work for me.”

In Costa Mesa, the young Mendoza was acclimated to white, suburban life and spoke only English. He knew nothing of his indigenous, Salinan heritage, though his father, an aerospace engineer, was descended from the Salinans, an ancient people who thrived for thousands of years in California’s San Antonio Valley.

“They were believed to have been extinct,” says Mendoza.

Though he is the first in the family to make a living through art, Mendoza says artists run in his family. Both his mother and grandfather were painters.

As a boy, Mendoza sketched on a chalkboard that he still possesses today—a gift from his mother. “Those drawings were my first art works.”

He was also given oil paints, rather than crayons, by his grandparents. His first paintings were of houses in storms.

Early on, he understood and contemplated the world in a visual way. “I started literally thinking, ‘What’s underneath this blacktop, this cement?’”

In 1984, Mendoza moved to Los Angeles, where he was surrounded by the graffiti, murals, and the street art scene of L.A., a visual dimension that Mendoza says created an alternative universe within the L.A. freeway system. But he is careful to differentiate between vandalism (including gang-related “tagging”) and art that can serve to improve and beautify a community.

One such instance is Mendoza’s “Fluid City Rising,” a grass roots mural project in Los Feliz. “The community was very proactive in the arts, and I wanted to celebrate that,” says Mendoza. “It’s a transformative piece on all levels.”

Again, the theme of healing, symbolized by flowing water, permeates the work.

Also during this time, Mendoza was emboldened by alternative post-punk rock music bands of the 1980s such as Joy Division, the B-52s, the Smiths and Dead Can Dance. ��It was offbeat, non-traditional, and innovative.”

Gradually, he began to realize it was okay to be different and unconventional, and he began to find himself as an Indigenous person and as an artist.

“I entered art school, and then I was among people who I understood and who understood me,” he says. “I found my artistic wings and my tribe.”

He attended the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where he was exposed to multiple disciplines: architecture, fashion design and painting. “I was able to cross pollinate.”

After graduating in 1987, he formed his own interior architectural design business before going solo as an artist.

“I’ve never been fully satisfied with simply painting,” says Mendoza, who brings a diversified approach to his artworks, often incorporating sculpture, painting and ceramics. “I’m bridging different disciplines.”

When approaching a project, he looks at the needs, adapts, and explores materials and methods— these will lead the way to the subject. At other times, he says, the subject matter will take the lead in the creative process.

He focuses on making the work “live” with the site. “I don’t think I have a specific style. My style, if I have one, is about being a chameleon.”

“I want my artwork to have an aesthetic, but I also want it to be of service,” he says. “I want to merge my artistic practice with a public service component.”

“Willie Boy Revisited”

It was Mendoza’s father who brought the story of Willie Boy to his son’s attention and who gave him the idea of doing a mural. Willie Boy’s story seems a good fit for Mendoza’s talents, and the task he has set for himself is an ambitious one. “I do not want this to be a historical mural,” he says.

He is out, rather, to capture the time in which Willie Boy lived, and the sense of a man being caught up in the turmoil of a changing world.

The period was ripe for a tragedy to occur, Mendoza says. Old battles were still fresh, and raw nerves existed on both white and Native sides. “There seemed to be a rush to judgment.”

He views the project as a continuation of his own journey of self-discovery as an Indigenous man and as an artist. As part of his research for the mural, Mendoza will travel along the same desert route taken by Willie Boy. “I believe Willie Boy as a person was a good man.”

“Willie Boy Revisited” will be erected in Mendoza’s Los Angeles studio and is set to be completed in October, 2011.