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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Finding Magic in the City of Exeter Mural Tour

Mar 24, 2016 11:00AM ● By Anonymous

A Living Canvas

April 2016
Story by Fache Desrochers
Photos by Amber Smith

There’s a certain magic to a mural. Perhaps it is the art form’s resemblance to a movie set: Sheer size coupled with an easy presence amongst decidedly tangible storefronts makes a mural believable as a window into the moment it depicts. Or maybe we enjoy the sort of rebellious spirit that murals embody, how they cheekily slip the surly bonds of size and indoor habitation that confines so many other art pieces, and bridge the gap between gallery and graffiti. But apart from being intrinsically compelling, murals represent the very heart of the artist, where the charge to make things beautiful and interesting is the highest law: The function of a building’s wall becomes secondary to its potential as a canvas. And a mural is also necessarily public, in a sort of community-sponsored pledge for a democratic right to beauty. Happily for the Valley, the foothill hamlet of Exeter understands all these truths about murals, and has made a concentrated effort to harness their magic for the enjoyment of locals and visitors alike. 

In the early 1990s, while vacationing in British Columbia, a couple from Exeter came across a town called Chemainus. Located on the east coast of Vancouver Island, this small village had been a logging town since 1858. But when the local timber industry began to dry up in the early 1980s, residents rallied together to save their city from economic collapse by creating a tourism draw of 39 outdoor murals. Like Exeter, Chemainus is a locally focused community which is small enough to consolidate its mural collection into the perfect walking tour to delight and inspire visitors, which is exactly what happened to the vacationing Californians. “They just fell in love with the idea, so they came back and pitched it to the city, who took a chance and commissioned Exeter’s very first mural which was completed in 1996,” says Exeter’s Chamber of Commerce head Sandy Blankenship. “And everything kind of blossomed from there.”

This first mural was “The Orange Harvest” by Colleen Mitchell-Veyna and Morgan McCall. Although already an accomplished artist, Mitchell-Veyna had never painted a mural before. She designed the piece, and enlisted McCall to help execute the painting. “We kind of got her going on murals; she’s very much in demand now for that,” Blankenship says of Mitchell-Veyna, who has since completed some 100 murals. “Exeter is lucky to have her work on several murals, but we strive for variety.” Quite a few local artists are represented, and are chosen for their strength at a particular style and compatibility with the mural’s subject. “Typically we come up with the subject first,” explains Blankenship. “It has to be a part of history, and be based on a photograph or writing, some historical element that we can cite and authenticate as part of Exeter’s heritage.”

Exeter’s mural tour features 29 full murals (not including two that have been retired, painted over and marked with plaques to memorialize their place in the tour). Together, they present a living history of Exeter and the Valley through everything from scenes of agricultural and railroad history, to the daily lives of native peoples, to tributes to members of the community. This visual tour of Exeter’s past has proven to be a hit with both travelers and local businesses alike, as the mural walk also provides a tour of Exeter’s charming downtown shopping and dining culture. A group of volunteer docents can guide visitors, but casual, self-guided tours are the norm. Printed maps are available from the Chamber of Commerce or online, and they list the artist, subject and selection of items that may be hidden in any mural. “Our tradition of hiding things in the murals started kind of by accident,” Blankenship says. Apparently, the artists working on the mural “The Packing Ladies” would flip a coin every morning to decide who paid for coffee, and eventually decided to incorporate an image of the coin into their piece, purely for fun. This little quirk was quickly adopted by Exeter’s subsequent muralists, and most stops on the tour now hide a little something for the sharp-eyed and inquisitive. “Kids are especially quick at finding the hidden things,” Blankenship says with a grin. 

Although the mural tour’s curation is ongoing, the current number seems close to ideal for Exeter’s size. And as production slows on the mural front, the city is already looking toward the next idea in community art. “There are some great ideas in the works, though I can’t say any more about them yet,” Blankenship says. “But I’m excited. This city really prioritizes local art, and supporting it just means a lot to us.” 

City of Exeter Mural Tour
(choose “visitors,” then “mural tours”)