Francisco Letelier started his career in public art 40 years ago, as part of a traveling brigade of muralists in Washington, D.C., where his father had served as a diplomat before being killed in a car bombing in 1976.
For the last week, the Chilean artist has been in downtown Fresno leading a brigade of local artists on a large-scale mural on the five-story back wall of the old Fresno Bee building, which is now home to Community Media Access Collaborative, on Van Ness Avenue.
Unofficially, this is the FranCisco Vargas brigade, named for the renown local muralist, who was selected to head the mural project before he died in 2015.
“Losing FranCisco was a huge blow to the community and to this project,” says Frank Delgado, the executive director and chief curator at Arte Américas, which collaborated with the Fresno Art Museum to commission the work. Letelier was more than suited to take over the project. He has a long history of making public art and came with high recommendations from the former director of Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.
He also has a passion for working in diverse communities.
“California, the Central Valley in particular, has histories and cultures that are often overlooked,” Letelier says. “When Frank called, I was all over it.”
The mural is being created with a nearly $100,000 grant from The McClatchy Fresno Art Endowment and coincides with Arte Américas’ 30th annivesary. Its design celebrates the Valley’s literary heritage and standing as the home of many widely recognized poets and writers. That includes two U.S. Poet Laureates and any number of award-winning children’s book writers, playwrights, novelists and journalists.
But you won’t see William Saroyan’s visage anywhere on the mural, Delgado says. While that may seem like the obvious artistic route, Delgado knew early on that any work that incorporated famous faces or names would lend itself to instant criticism about who would be included, and more pointedly, who would get left off.
“I personally wasn’t going to be the keeper of that comprehensive list,” Delgado says.
Instead, Letelier’s design evokes the spirit of Mexican mural Diego Rivera and celebrates the idea of “The Every Individual,” Delgado says.
It’s a single allegorical image: a flock of birds that runs the length of the building, coalescing into a man with his head down. He’s reading a book. His body and the book emanate light.
The process of creating that image was something Letelier did not take lightly. He spent three months working with the two museums and meeting with community groups to create a design that reflected the culture and history of the city and the neighborhood.
“People often ignore that process,” Letelier says. “It’s messy. It’s like life.”
Letelier is working with local artist Mauro Carrera as his primary assistant on the project, though others – like FranCisco Vargas’ daughter Serena Vargas – are expected to join in on the work.
The pair did its prep work last month in an eight-day run using only paint buckets and rollers – in the tradition with classic muralists. They have been working on the mural every day this week, barring weather issues, and hope to have most of the work completed before Letelier returns home to Los Angeles next week.
CMAC is filming the process for a future documentary.