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Artwork Analysis: Siempre Santa Ana

written by Karina Trujillo

Murals bring beauty and an invitation to the neighborhood, encouraging one to slow down and admire the surroundings, and even create dialogue. The mural Siempre Santa Ana at Heritage Museum of Orange County was intended to celebrate the City of Santa Ana’s 150th birthday through a visual art that recounts the city’s past. I encourage you to see it in person, where you can truly combine and understand the mural from a historian perspective and that of an art historian. At the museum, the tour guide provides the historian perspective, where the focus is on the culture and history. Therefore, this text is focused on the art historian perspective; in short, we are going to think like the artists.

To begin, an artist’s process starts with the conceptual design, followed by the selection process and the creation. When dealing with the conceptual design, one must have the massive scale in mind, the community setting, and how the mural will be viewed, thus, the scale of specific objects. In the case of Siempre Santa Ana, the mural wall is massive, 83ft x 19 ft to be exact, where the height is smaller than the length, encouraging a stretch of the foreground and a limited area of the background.

Not only is our wall a canvas that can only be viewed from within the museum, but it is a physical barrier that separates two institutions. Besides the overall dimensions of the intended wall, the centered doors within the space must be highly considered. These doors at first glance seem like an interruption to an artwork, but later you will understand the significance of these doors to the work. To the community setting, these doors allow students to enter Heritage Museum from Godinez High School, but not general museum visitors to the school. Once the visitors are within the museum space facing the wall at any distance, the compositional design can be seen working hand in hand with the conceptual design.

Compositional designs are key to the selection process because several things are to be considered in order to best portray the goal of the mural. The design must clearly demonstrate logical and sequential order, understandable knowledge, and legible and immediately understood imagery that the audience can follow. Art, like a sentence in a book, is read from left to right, which provides that needed sequential order that is further enhanced by the length of the wall. Specifically, in Siempre Santa Ana’s foreground, the overall content of the historical events in the city can be read from left to right, from indigenous to modern context. When looking from afar, the dominant features that highlight this timeline are portraits of individuals that appear on the upper top of the foreground and slightly receding into the background. Continuing at a distance, these heads appear to be floating, but once up close, one can see that the natural environment separates yet also connects both parts of the foreground. The giant heads no longer looking as if floating, instead they look like giants surrounding a city’s infrastructure, as if they were the architects who designed a model of the city. This same technique of surrounding specific objects also occurs to the overall composition, where the context is framed and confined from the sides with trees.

Keeping this in mind, up close one can feel the disruption of the doors, which forces the viewer to stand in front of them at a distance where the entire mural can be seen. To focus further on individual details, the viewer must first absorb the mural by two parts.

The first area of focus will be from the framing tree on the left to the interrupted building merging with the doors. Here we see that the buildings were forced into a diagonal recession back into the picture plane, which is further amplified by the two indigenous figures positioned as if directing the viewer into the painting. The other area from the second pair of doors to a framing tree at the right, also shows this diagonal recession into the artwork, but in the opposite direction.

Now to create an understanding of the entire mural, one must combine all these elements together. When standing in front of the doors near the center of the mural, one also feels to be standing at the corner or edge of the city and perhaps a turning point in history. The opposite recession of the buildings into the images of individuals and then to the top of the mountain in the background illustrates an oblique plane, as if observing the city extend until the mountains. When also including context, the corner of the plane and the doors themselves can symbolize a disruption in history. One can assume that corners or edges cause a literal change in direction, but here the interruption of the image of a school and a courthouse might represent the turning point where schools became desegregated by law and there were less barriers for equal education. It is through these doors that the museum is able to bring the community together to improve our city like these great leaders.

The final significant stage of the artistic process would be to create the mural, which serves to better our community. First, one must prepare the surface where a gesso layer is the base and a grid is chalked out. The grid helps the artists translate the design to a large-scale image to cover the entire wall. Within these grids, the drawings can be depicted and then defined with paint. Following the enlarging of the design, underpainting is taken place to serve as a base for subsequent layers. The layers of paint on top are to reflect the intended colors of the mural. The process of piling can be seen by analyzing individual objects. For example, the background contains the mountain and the sky blending into one through blue paint as the base and with the addition of red and white. The same approach can be seen for the foreground where green is the dominant pigment. These piling of pigments to create the foreground and background work together with the images of people and infrastructures piled on top. Everything is as if blended together because the people are one with the land they live in. All these artistic elements invites the viewer to figuratively enter the past through real doors and once experiencing the historian perspective you will find out time period you entered in Santa Ana.