Near the main entrance to the Mills College campus, painted on a supporting wall under the 580 freeway overpass, is the word D FFERENCE in 10-foot-high letters.
The text-based conceptual mural suggests one needs to include his or her “I” to make the “difference,” and is one of four similar art pieces commissioned through the City of Oakland’s Public Art Program in the early 1990s.
The artwork, entitled, Words by Roads, was created by Iranian artist Seyed Alavi in collaboration with sixteen students from three local high schools in Oakland.
It constituted Alavi’s first formal public art installation, and his first time collaborating with students.
In the planning stage, Alavi held workshops over a period of four months with the students who came up with the ideas and sketches for the murals. “I only saw myself acting as facilitator,” said Alavi. Their intent was to challenge viewers to think about the topics raised. The words for the other mural sites are eRACISM, INFORM(N)ATION, and INVISIBLE COLORS.
“I am thrilled that they are still there,” Alavi said in a phone interview. “The paint for the murals is protected from the weather.”
By the time Julie Bourland published her article about Alavi’s murals in the campus newspaper (then named The Weekly) in Oct. of 1992, the temporary murals’ expiration date had already passed.
“I am pleased that they still cause people to pause and think about the words’ meanings, but I would not have hurt feelings if they were taken down.”
After a pause, Alavi added, “Maybe it is best for them to come down so that someone else could create new art in their place.”
But many in the community want the artwork to stay. Local artist Blanka Soltys hoped Alavi’s artwork would remain. “I don’t think these murals should come down to be replaced by other art, there are many other blank spaces under freeways which could be painted,” she said.
According to Kristen Zaremba, assistant public art coordinator for the Oakland Cultural Arts Department, “The(se) murals were commissioned through the City’s Public Art Program, as temporary works of art; therefore, our intention is to support their existence for as long as they remain in good condition.”
Alavi, who came to the U.S. from Iran when he was 17, earned a Bachelor of Science degree from San Jose State University and a Masters of Fine Art from the San Francisco Art Institute. His website showcases his extensive resume and portfolio of work, which according to the site is “engaged with the poetics of language and space and their power to shape reality.”