The Mural Has Two Faces

No such surprises lurk in Johnson's mural, which comprises eight panels and runs about 180 feet. Johnson says the panels inset between the columns of the masonry building lent themselves to painting a story. "So I decided to make it a story about people. People struggling, people in despair, people working together and moving toward hope and solutions."

The images of drug use, prostitution and crime in the earlier panels feature a bit of the area's seedier side. But the sad-to-happy story quickly shows the cavalry arriving in the form of an airborne spirit reaching down to turn a bullet into a flower and the police collaring a burglar. Then it's on to a happier pictorial flurry of doctors and nurses caring for people, schoolchildren carrying books, streets full of families, yards full of gardens and other obvious symbols of springtime optimism and hope.

To hammer the message home, Johnson has quoted Benito Juarez, in Spanish, across the south wall: "Respect for the rights of others is peace." And Saint Francis of Assisi across the main wall: "Where there is hatred, let us sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. And where there is sadness, joy."

Johnson clearly took her lead from Diego Rivera's rotund stylizations and rhythms of thronging crowds and dense landscapes. She's done a fairly good job of incorporating those effects into her own lyrical sense of illustration. But her characterizations of figures in the mural are weak, their faces and poses generic. They are kinds of people, rather than individuals. So they have none of the intimacy or pathos you'd find in the works of Rivera, or the self-reflective presence you'd find in the faces in a Giotto.

But these kinds of considerations don't really matter. "To me it says the truth about this place," says Richard Hernandez, a 15-year resident of the area and a community leader in the McDowell Manors neighborhood, adjacent to the mural. "It tells where we came from and where we want to go. Sure, there's drugs, suffering, misery and sadness here, but we're all trying to go to that better place that Saint Francis Assisi says."

The fact is, this and the other Coronado neighborhood murals mean more as a community process than they do as works of art. Maybe they help to halt graffiti, or to brighten bleak city walls with some uplifting food for thought. Yet, ultimately, they offer a kind of social therapy that many communities haven't been able to get any other way: "One of the things I noticed," says Bomhoff, "is that when people were out there painting, it was quiet, not a sound. It was very soothing. I hate to make too much of this, but once when we had about 20-25 people of all different ages painting together, everybody was focused and you just felt kind of bonded by that.

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