Skip to main content

Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Downtown Visalia is Transformed from Mundane to Artsy

Dec 25, 2016 11:00AM ● By Ben Ralph

Urban Art

January 2017
By Ben Ralph
Photos: Kelly Avila

What is art? A simple question, really, and yet so elusive. Is art the imitation of nature? Is it the embodiment of perfect (or near perfect) forms? Is it the execution of a philosophy and thus the representation of a particular style or genre or school of thought? Must it be deliberately constructed with the intention of being art, or is the observer’s recognition that defines it as so? Is it a universal or is it truly in the “eye of the beholder”? 

From there come questions of form, truth, beauty, “geist” (real word, real concept and perhaps the best term in art criticism). Alas, the debate continues within all mediums as artists and connoisseurs argue their views on which art is valid and which is not. Rap but not Drake. Painting but not Kincaid. Coke but not Pepsi. David Eggers but not the Twilight Series…well, maybe not Eggers, either. With all these conundrums, it may be easier to simply leave the questions to the philosophers. 

Perhaps a simpler question for our time is “where does street art fit in?” Some may not have even thought to ask this question, since, for many, street art is not art. For these folks, to call it “street art” does a disservice to both the street and to art. But are they right? Visalia Mayor Steve Nelson simply points to downtown Visalia, where the works created through the Urban Artworks project are on display. 

If you’re looking for grand facades, epic murals depicting oranges or Sequoias or other Valley landmarks, you’re doing it wrong. On display every day are typical constructs that must be a part of urban landscape: trash enclosures, electrical boxes. But with this project, the mundane is now the canvas. As Nelson explains, that’s the point. “I wanted something eye-catching, something people go, ‘Wow!’” 

Why street art? Simply put by Nelson: “It’s always colorful.” Period. Murals could have been done, “but that’s been done,” Nelson says. Throughout Valley towns, it seems that one practically can’t have a downtown without murals. But the Valley is more than the agriculture or national parks often depicted in these murals: It’s its people. 

Urban Artworks is a combined effort by Arts Visalia, Downtown Visalians and the Urbanists Collective. After a call for submissions, five were selected. The finished pieces can now be seen in the parking lots between Center and Main streets for a minimum of three years. Aside from the immediate benefit of having fantastic, colorful artwork in lieu of the drab facades, Nelson described more long-term benefits, including less litter around the enclosures and evidence that putting art on objects decreases the chance of graffiti and defacing. “So far, that’s held true,” he says.

One may argue that street art is graffiti and defacing property, but feedback the project received thus far would not support this. Pictures of the projects were on display at the California State Capitol and the Visalia Convention Center, getting state recognition and even national attention. “It’s kinda evolved, kinda on its legs now,” Nelson says. Indeed, artists from outside the area are now interested in submitting works. 

The project itself is looking to expand to include more trash enclosures and electrical boxes with the goal of being able to include all the works in a downtown Art Walk. “If we can get that kind of vibe going,” notes Nelson, “it benefits the city and it benefits the downtown area.” Already several projects are in the process of getting approvals to begin, with the hopes of 14 electrical boxes and trash enclosures being used as media for urban artists. 

And so we return to the question, “What is art?” There may be detractors who say whatever art may be, it is not “urban.” But a counter question may be, “Given the option of looking at a cinder block wall or at a meticulously painted scene, which is preferred?” Do we not paint our walls? Our buildings? Our homes? And so the answer must be that the Urban Artworks project is indeed art, where the mundane becomes beautiful.

Visit the works between Main and Center streets and from N. Locust to N. Church streets.