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New mural explores early California culture clash

Photo by Elizabeth Clayton

A new work of art that graces the side of Gaylord's Cafe Espresso on Piedmont Avenue catches the attention of passersby, who in hurrying about their daily lives, suddenly stop, backtrack a few steps and turn to examine and enjoy. Artist Rocky Baird is close to completing a mural that depicts an overview of the history of California, with an emphasis on the exploitation of the Ohlone (an informal umbrella term for the native people of the Bay Area).

Baird has infused every square foot of the mural with symbolism; an onlooker, despite having spent a substantial amount of time and energy studying every inch of the piece, could find new details and meaning with each encounter.

Baird said that he only explains his work to a certain level because he does not want to take away the symbolism that others may find.

"I love seeing what other people get from it," he said.

Baird said that he uses "history to make modern statements." In this mural, he shows how Franciscans were a "perfect example of misguided perception." He said that one particular image could sum up the message behind the entire mural. In the upper left corner, a Franciscan guides an Ohlone in painting a symbol significant to the Franciscan culture, the Holy Heart of Mary. In this particular part of the painting, a wooden beam is painted across the eyes of both the Ohlone and the Franciscan to symbolize that both individuals are blind; the Fran-ciscan is blind to the harm he is causing and the Ohlone is blind to the lack of meaning these symbols carry in his own religion and culture.

"It's that strange perception that wouldn't have any kind of meaning to the Ohlone at all," he said.

Baird said that the first part of the title of his piece, The Capture of Solid, is "a great-er metaphor for the human desire to manipulate." The second half of the title of his piece, The Escape of Soul, represents "the essence of the people that can't be contained, can't be jailed."

A grant from the Oakland Cultural Funding Program was the primary source of funding for the mural. Other support came from the community.

"It's a fantastic community that has a deeper appreciation of history and I'm glad they had the integrity to support this piece," Baird said.

According to Baird, "the Oh-lone mural is not a piece about villains and victims. It is about perceptions." Baird stressed that part of the purpose of the mural is to pose questions about these topics. So far he seems to have succeeded.

Emi Kojima, an employee at Gaylord's Cafe Espresso, said that the mural makes "a strong social statement. It gets people thinking and that's excellent."

Carlos Aceituno, a Gaylord's customer, said the mural makes him wonder about the Ohlone people of today. "Where are they? Are they among us?" he questioned.

The mural, which Baird has spent roughly four months painting, is almost finished. All that is left are the side panels to the left and right of the mural.

With the end of this mural approaching, Baird is looking for new projects. In fact, a new mural by Baird may be in Mills' future.

Prior to the start of his current project Baird said he approached the Julia Morgan School for Girls, located just within the entrance to Mills College about painting a mural of Julia

Morgan.

"I've been researching Julia Morgan in the last year and eventually want to paint murals about her."

Baird said that he momentarily set aside this idea so he could focus on his current project. Now that his mural is nearly finished, he will most likely take on a new project.