The wall running along Kimball Park in National City is now decorated with embedded chunks of coffee mugs, trophies rummaged from the basement of City Hall -- and even an ice cream scoop from Niederfrank's Ice Cream shop.
“It’s really colorful, a lot of animals of clay and bright colors in the tile,” said Karla Gonzalez, a 12th grader at Sweetwater High who helped create the nearly complete 300-foot watershed-themed mural on the wall.
“My favorite part is where it’s the ocean and it has blue, colorful fish in there. It’s so pretty!” Gonzalez said. She is a part of the team of nine apprentices and countless other community volunteers who worked under the guidance of artist Rob Tobin to create the mural. It symbolizes the path of storm water which flows through the city and eventually to the ocean.
“It’s a beautiful wall in terms of art component,” said Brad Raulston, National City’s executive director of planning and community development, ”I think it’s a great example of what we’re trying to do with the ARTS Center and city working together.”
The ARTS Center moved to National City from Point Loma three years ago. ARTS stands for “A Reason to Survive.”
The 20,000 square-foot National City studio includes a music room, Media Arts lab, painting studio, ceramics studio gallery and performing arts space. It serves about two thousand local students a year, who face adversities ranging from deployed parents to domestic violence, mental health disabilities and homelessness.
The idea now is to take the creativity that’s been brewing inside the center with its youth programs outside to the community as a whole. The mosaic wall is just the first project in the ARTS’ Creating Vibrant Neighborhoods Initiative. The goal is to create 30 public art projects within a three square mile area in National City, in the next three years.
“It’s going to be like a ripple effect,” said ARTS founder Matt D’Arrigo. “It’s going to reflect the culture here, to get to what’s important to them.”
D’Arrigo knows first-hand how art can change lives. His sixth grade art teacher’s praise saved him from his academic struggles.
“All of a sudden I wasn’t a failure anymore. I was an artist. It gave me identity,” said D’Arrigo.
Art saved D’Arrigo again when both his mother and sister were diagnosed with cancer within four months of one another. He cared for both and would escape by painting. His sister survived, his mother did not.
D’Arrigo hopes art can also help children in National City deal with their personal challenges.
Gonzalez said her involvement in art has helped her gain confidence, especially in her language abilities, since moving to National City from Mexico six years ago.
“Before I would get so stressed,” Gonzalez said. “I would get so anxious.”
She said her work creating custom animal tiles for the wall and coordinating other volunteers has helped her tremendously.
“It’s fun because while you do it, the time goes by really fast. You’re concentrating, you don’t think about anything else, just what you’re doing at that time,” Gonzalez said.
Raulston, who has also volunteered time working on the wall as well, thinks the art projects can transform the entire neighborhood.
“I truly hope that this idea of ownership can come through public spaces. People see the wall and they’re probably more inclined to clean up their yard and do something that contributes to the neighborhood,” said Raulston, “and that’s a snowball effect.”
The wall is just the beginning. The city has already agreed to fund a new skate park, which will integrate artistic ideas from the community. Future projects might also include a playground and exercise area.
Gonzalez said she looks forward to a day in the future when she has her own children and can take them to the wall and tell them she helped create it.
“I think that it’s going to make the city look beautiful,” she said. “and it’s going to be there forever.”
To learn more about the ARTS program, visit the center’s website.